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UD President Dennis Assanis (left) shakes hands with Executive Chef John Deflieze during the celebration of the Vita Nova Renovation.
UD President Dennis Assanis (left) shakes hands with Executive Chef John Deflieze during the celebration of the Vita Nova renovation.

Vita Nova renovation

Photos by Evan Krape

UD’s award-winning restaurant and teaching kitchen gets makeover

Just five years after its “Front of House” renovation, Vita Nova, the University of Delaware’s student operated and managed fine dining restaurant, has revealed a major transformation in the “Back of House.” This project will ensure that UD’s hospitality business management (HSBM) students have the opportunity to learn pivotal professional managerial skills working in a state-of-the-art facility. On Thursday, May 16, UD President Dennis Assanis, leadership from UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics  and supporters of the renovation came together to celebrate the updated Teaching Kitchen, Bistro Dining Room and Demonstration Innovation Kitchen at Vita Nova.

“With facilities such as Vita Nova, the University of Delaware continuously enhances the success of our students by providing exciting and dynamic experiences that enable them to thrive,” Assanis said. “I am so proud of the fact that our community came together to make this possible. Your generous support has helped us flourish as a world-class institution and prepare our next generation of leaders in the hospitality industry.”

This renovation was made possible by several generous donors including Aramark, The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation and James B. Foulk, Class of 1959, and Nancy Woodward Foulk, Class of 1960, in addition to a successful fundraising effort on UD’s crowdfunding platform HenFunder and project partners across UD.

Vita Nova’s History

Vita Nova’s restaurant management classroom first opened in 1996, giving students a firsthand experience in all aspects of operating and managing a fine-dining operation. In the 23 years since it first opened, Vita Nova has served over 7,000 meals each year, has received awards for best fine dining and is ranked on OpenTable’s Top 10 Diner's Choice Best Overall Restaurants in Delaware.

“In large part, Vita Nova helped our HSBM program gain the ranking of one of the top 10 hospitality programs in the country,” said Bruce Weber, dean of the Lerner College.

Executive Chef Joe DiGregorio and Dean of the Lerner College Bruce Weber discuss the Vita Nova renovation with guests in the Teaching Kitchen.
Executive Chef Joe DiGregorio and Dean of the Lerner College Bruce Weber discuss the Vita Nova renovation with guests in the Teaching Kitchen.

During their time at Vita Nova, students rotate daily through 17 different positions that range from handling social media to being a sous chef in the show kitchen to managing the entire restaurant. This experience gives HSBM students a career advantage, with 100% of the students who graduated in 2018 pursuing further education or employed by major companies in the industry like Aramark, Marriott International, Hilton Hotels and Resorts and Hyatt.

“We have built partnerships across campus,” said Deputy Dean of the Lerner College and Aramark Professor Sheryl Kline, who served as chair of the HSBM Department when the renovation first began. “We partner with the College of Arts and Sciences to highlight our talented music students and provide dinner before one of the many performances. We collaborate with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources by using their fresh and seasonal items in our menu. Students from the College of Engineering team up with our students on research projects like creating a prototype for a napkin folding machine and we are always looking for more ways to collaborate across UD. We are so proud to work and teach in this space.”

Since its opening, Vita Nova has become an integral part of the HSBM student experience at UD. The programs it provides have expanded to include important professional skills like managing large events or creating expert wine pairings.

UD hospitality business management students display their work in the Teaching Kitchen to guests during the celebration of the Vita Nova renovation.
UD hospitality business management students display their work in the Teaching Kitchen to guests during the celebration of the Vita Nova renovation.

“Working in the Vita Nova space as a student has been superb,” said HSBM student and Aramark scholar Quinn di Girolamo, Class of 2019. “I've had the opportunity, of all things, to make mistakes. We have some of the most patient and friendly educators who fully understand that we all operate at different levels and have different levels of industry experience and interests. After graduation I will be heading to Baltimore to work for PSAV (a global event production company) in their National College Leadership program … I never would have had this opportunity without UD HSBM.”

The Renovation

The Vita Nova restaurant and teaching space closed at the end of the Spring 2018 semester to begin the renovations. The project was completed over the span of that summer and in the first week of the Fall 2018 semester, the facility was reopened and the renovation was revealed.

Besides delicious food, fine dining also involves imaginative and carefully-crafted presentation.
Besides delicious food, fine dining also involves imaginative and carefully-crafted presentation.

“This would not have been possible without the teamwork and planning of all those involved,” Kline said. “The architecture firm of PZS created the state of the art design and created a very functional, warm and welcoming vibe. Whiting Turner led the construction project, along with the team at UD Facilities.  Our students and faculty began this academic year in a space that transformed their educational experience.”

“Through this collaborative effort we are working to help students develop the culinary and leadership skills to succeed in the field after graduation,” said Trevor Ferguson, president of field operations for Aramark. “This partnership that Aramark has with UD is important for a number of reasons. It is part of our long term commitment to the UD community and promoting student success is a key part of our mission. We are proud that this year we have a record number of Aramark scholars graduating from the program.”

Mireille Cottle, the vice president of human resources at Marriott International and member of the HBM Advisory Council, said supporting Vita Nova is a “great way” for Marriott to make sure students learn in a great environment.

“The renovation is absolutely beautiful and the experience that students have here is almost better than reality in the industry,” Cottle said. “I also co-own a restaurant, and the opportunity for UD students to experiment and create in this space, that’s what it’s all about, creativity.”

The renovation outfitted the original Teaching Kitchen with a new look and energy efficient equipment, creating a state-of-the-art space for HSBM students. Additionally, the Bistro Dining Room now features moveable walls and interactive technology. The Demonstration Innovation Kitchen was also updated with the latest technology, as well as new furniture and space to accommodate more students.

“The biggest positive change in the renovation is energy efficiency, staying current with industry technology and creating a safer workplace,” said Executive Chef John Deflieze. “HSBM students will have the ability to work in a state of art kitchen.  The new technology allows for a great learning outcome.”

Di Girolamo said he was in the kitchen before and after the renovation.

“In the kitchen, there are greater sight lines, vivid blue accents and several new features/equipment,” di Girolamo said. “The satellite kitchen and the bistro room were well worth the investment as well. The satellite kitchen/classroom is bright and as modern as it gets. It’s our own little Food Network production room equipped with high definition cameras, innovative hood systems and sizable displays.

Having room in the right places in a kitchen matters a lot.
Having room in the right places in a kitchen matters a lot.

“When the classroom isn't in use by our chefs and professors, John and Joe [DiGregorio], it acts as a private hub and gathering area for HSBM students working together on projects and biding their time in-between classes. The walls in the back of the satellite kitchen collapse and open up into our Bistro room. The addition of the accordion wall has allowed Vita Nova greater opportunities at hosting private events. Just this past year we have hosted Dogfish Head and several board members. The new design of the Bistro transitions smoothly into the rest of the restaurant. These renovations will aptly entice new students to the program as a state-of-the-art facility.”

Vita Nova’s Future

“I know of no other four-year hospitality program that engages the students in every aspect of restaurant operations the way that Vita Nova does,” said Executive Chef Joe DiGregorio. “This renovation keeps us current with industry standards and confirms our commitment of excellence to the students, the program and the university. The applied learning our students are exposed to and perform daily is a perfect way to culminate the knowledge they have acquired through their studies in our program.”

Although the renovation of Vita Nova’s “Back of House” is complete, the program will continue to grow, change and adapt with the hospitality industry. The restaurant will be able to offer more opportunities for students to manage large-scale events and learn expert skills in their field.

“UD is at the forefront of developing students not just intellectually, but professionally,” Weber said. “By immersing them in innovative, hands-on educational opportunities, like Vita Nova, we’re enriching their education and preparing them to succeed in an environment of rapid change, global competition and advances in technology.”

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