Lesa Holford picks basil leaves from Ohio State’s gardens. Credit: K.D. Chamberlain

Lesa Holford, the corporate executive chef for Ohio State dining services, spent her childhood summers with her Finnish grandmother. Her grandmother had an impressive garden with fresh peaches, snap peas, plums and raspberries that she would pick.

“She always encouraged my sister and I to cook and bake with her and get our hands dirty,” Holford said.

Getting her hands dirty as a young girl helped shape Holford into the culinary expert that she is now.

Holford is responsible for dining services’ overall menu planning, collaboration and research with suppliers, as well as local food purchasing. Holford has been part of Ohio State’s dining services team since 2013, and has background culinary experience in specialty retail, restaurant, banquet catering and higher education.

Ohio State has more than 30 dining operations across all its campuses. The dining services program started nearly 100 years ago, and now employs approximately 3,000 employees.

“University food service programs have undergone dramatic changes in the last 15 years,” said Zia Ahmed, dining services’ senior director. “Not only has the quality of food improved, but there are now many more healthy options available.”

Ahmed credits a lot of this success to Holford’s team and their open lines of communication with students.

“[The dining staff] are the ones who are constantly working with our students,” Ahmed said. “We’re always conducting surveys to learn what students want from us.”

Holford echoes Ahmed’s sentiments, and said she wants students to know that their feedback and ideas are extremely valuable.

“We’re currently working with the [Resident Halls Advising Council], student government, vegan and vegetarian focus groups, employee council and other specialized diet-focus groups [because] they’re a great resource to tell us what works, what they want and what they might miss,” Holford said.

Campus dining locations also added the “Limited Time Offer” platform starting Sept. 18, which will temporarily feature special menu items, and which Holford said works well for testing potential new items.

Because of Ohio State’s diverse student population, implementing creative recipes and menu choices is a priority for the dining services staff.

“[We’ve implemented dishes like] the shrimp ceviche at the Union Market, gochujang sauce as an option at [Morrill Commons], and custom teriyaki bowls at Curl Market,” Holford said. “Based on feedback we’ve even introduced pho [noodles] at Traditions, [and] right now I’m working on introducing some Indian-themed vegetarian options to test in the spring.”

Just as Holford, literally and figuratively, got her pick of the litter while picking fruits and vegetables with her grandmother, Ohio State students have a multitude of food options across campus thanks to the corporate executive chef and her team.

“We’ve worked to make [food] stations more customizable,” Holford said. “If our students can make the choices to build their own meals, then they can own whatever it is they are looking for.”