For Mitch Vanagten, landing the job as executive chef of UC Merced was the realization of a dream.
“I always wanted to open my own restaurant,” said Vanagten. “This position at a new school is a way of doing it.”
At this “restaurant,” Vanagten oversees a staff of 40, including student employees, who formulate, prepare and serve meals at the Valley Commons dining area. If all goes according to his plan, students will never again be slaves to coffee and Top Ramen noodles, he said
“I want to make sure the students and staff that visit the dining center get healthy meals,” he said, adding that having a chef on staff makes it possible to choose from a variety of made to order meals.
“Fresh choices is the main characteristic of campus dining,”said Vanagten. Diners can have their choice of sandwiches on freshly baked bread and salads tossed-to-order, and vegetarian and vegan choices are also available, such as Vanagten’s special zucchini-corn enchiladas. Students can also find their favorites like pizza, Mexican and Asian food - and of course, coffee.
Beginning at an early age, Chef Mitch, as he is known, always knew that culinary work was the career he was meant for.
“My mom and dad both worked full time. Sometimes they would come home late, so I would make the meals for my family,” he said.
Vanagten has come a long way from his parents kitchen in Fremont, California. He enrolled in a three-year apprenticeship program through the American Culinary Federation and soon landed a job as a corporate executive chef with AZLA Pharmaceuticals in Palo Alto.
After five years with AZLA, the Bay Area native wanted a change of scenery and moved to the Central Valley, where he worked as executive chef at California State University, Stanislaus.
“I was ready to make the move,” Vanagten says of his decision to join the staff at UC Merced. “And I couldn’t turn down the opportunity of starting a dining service from scratch.”