A Culinary Journey

Danielle Vance, Executive Chef
Photo and video by Robert DeSanto

Executive Chef Danielle Vance learned during her interview process that Yale had a robust hospitality program. She embarked on her career at the university in 2017 as a dining services manager, and today, she is one of three executive chefs supporting a pod of Yale College dining halls.

Title Executive Chef
Years in current position 5 months (as of Dec 2023)
Started at Yale 2017

Did you always want to be a chef?

I grew up hearing the tales of the food business. My grandmother owned a luncheonette in Seymour called Ted’s Spot. My mother saw how my grandmother would work, and she was concerned that I wanted to be a chef, though baking with my mother during the holidays fueled my passion.

On my first day at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), we had to tell the class about our favorite dish to make (mine was creating elaborate chocolate houses at Christmas with my mom). I was slightly embarrassed because I didn’t have the experience that many of my peers did, but I had the drive to succeed. I knew it was my dream.

Danielle Vance talks about her journey from culinary student to executive chef at Yale.

Can you tell us about your training and early career?

I entered culinary school in 2005, just prior to the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. I saw classmates graduate with lots of debt and get low paying, hourly positions. Even though there were many uncertainties, I was already halfway through the program. I decided I would complete my studies and figure out the financial situation later. I graduated from CIA with a Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality management in February of 2009. 

Some of my first jobs in the industry were working at the Walt Disney World College Program as a line cook, the New Haven Lawn Club, and Tomasso’s Trattoria in Boston. I switched to the management side after experiencing the demands of the industry, the pace, the small financial reward, and the reality that it would be tough to start and raise a family.

I returned home to Prospect, CT, and I worked at a restaurant in Middletown for four years, eventually becoming general manager and executive chef. I then took a position managing with Panera Bread to learn about the corporate side of the industry, but I always missed the culinary creativity found in restaurants.

Immediately before coming to Yale, I worked at Chartwells Higher Ed as a food program manager covering the City of Farmington’s public school district. While it provided stability and regular hours, it lacked creativity. School food programs at that level are very regulated. I opened a lot of boxes of prepared foods and followed a list of state and federal guidelines about portions. With the realization I couldn’t remain in a job I was not happy in, I found the job posting for Yale Hospitality.

How would you describe your career path at Yale and your current role?

When I was hired as a dining services manager, Yale Hospitality was growing and seeking managers with culinary backgrounds. This was an amazing opportunity to utilize my management experience in a culinary-focused organization. Within a year, my job title changed to culinary excellence manager. I concentrated on food production, developed menus and recipes, and managed the day-to-day operations of Pierson College and then Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges.

Just before the university shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I became the hospitality general manager at Trumbull College. I focused on administrative work like payroll, budgets, hiring, and scheduling. This gave me a chance to grow my skills and continue my upward development in the department.

Trumbull College remained open during the shutdown, and seemingly overnight, we needed to figure out how to safely serve our students who were still on campus. It was an incredible learning experience. Our staff were extraordinarily committed to their work and keeping the students safe and fed. We became a family to the students—for many of them, the only human contact they had was when they came to the dining hall.

I became an executive chef in the summer of 2023. It’s a new role that was a result of Yale Hospitality’s growth and expanded mission. I support the culinary operations and staff for five Yale College Dining Halls. The team includes about 60 chefs, cooks, and pantry workers, and I work with them on recipes, menus, procurement, training, and the consistency and quality of what and how we serve our community.

What is your biggest professional challenge?

At the forefront of my position is keeping our students safe—being aware of allergens and dietary accommodations. We also have the continuous challenge of creating balanced, nutritious menus that support our core values as an organization, meet the varied needs of our student body, and are offerings that students want to eat.

We are always looking for ways to better address student needs and wants within our menus, while maintaining and fostering the community atmosphere central to the dining hall. A major demand over the past few years was to make our menus more inclusive for students who want to enjoy the dining hall experience to the fullest along with their friends. For instance, comfort food means something different depending on where you grew up. We fine-tune menus to hopefully provide students a chance to experience that, while also introducing them to new ingredients, dishes, and cuisines.

What would you say to someone who is looking for a career in hospitality?

Be prepared to be on your feet and work with a diverse group of people; it’s an active and dynamic job. You need to be passionate, enjoy a challenge, and like to be moving.

There are many areas of the food industry: photography, communications, research and development, restaurant chef, food science, and teaching to name a few. Take the time to examine why you are attracted to the industry and research the different job opportunities. There are many entry-level positions that can give you a glimpse of what a long-term career might look like.

And consider Yale! Yale has a great food scene, working environment, and wonderful benefits—I got my master’s degree in business administration from Johnson and Wales University using the tuition reimbursement benefit, and I have experienced the continued growth in my career.