Senior executive chef
Emil Topel was raised in England, where he attended culinary school in London. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1989, he worked in many restaurants and various prestigious hotels in Florida. Owning a gourmet market for four years helped Topel appreciate the retail aspects of the business, from marketing to the production of his line of gourmet sauces. In 2004, he became the executive chef of the Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center, experiencing the true meaning of living in the South. Topel joined Auburn University as the senior executive chef in 2007 and helped to build a great food service program while using his creativity daily. Topel has won culinary competitions over the years and in 2011, was awarded the Chef of the Year award for the South Region by Chartwells. He said the highlight of his Auburn career was getting to ride in the Auburn jet to LSU for a strategy meeting last year, and he is often seen driving around campus putting out fires. Topel's newest project is an Auburn-themed and licensed cookbook that will highlight his five years with the campus and dining program. His cookbook is set to be on bookshelves everywhere in March 2013.
1. What can you tell us about the sustainable dining efforts at Auburn?
Where to begin! This project has grown over the past five years and is increasingly moving to the forefront. Compass Group, our parent company, has standard sustainability initiatives such as Fair Trade coffee, antibiotic free chicken and turkey, cage-free eggs, hormone free milk, beef and pork, and sustainable fish. Auburn Recycling collects our cardboard, paper, aluminum and plastic from the kitchens around campus. We also send our cooking oil waste to a recycler who turns it into biodiesel gasoline. We are trying to use the most sustainable packaging for our food items, purchase as much local food and implement as many green practices across campus as possible. We are in meetings to hopefully begin a composting program in the near future, which will open many other avenues.
I am continually learning as we grow the program and have made some good and bad decisions in the process. One bad decision was a new food service glove that reduced the plastic content and cardboard packaging – when I switched the entire campus to these new gloves, we discovered they melt! Good for the environment, but bad for my employees!
2. What is your process for local buying?
On a local front, I believe we have taken this to the next level. I buy as much local produce as I can through my distributor - last month 16 percent of my purchases were from local growers. I have sourced Auburn-grown food such as chicken, eggs and produce, and I purchase catfish from Auburn Fisheries. We also changed ice cream to Blue Bell recently, which is produced locally. Some of our food containers are made from post-recycled content and are manufactured in Montgomery.
3. What other ways have you gotten involved locally with Auburn?
We are involved with Campus Kitchens, a student-run organization, who picks up surplus food three times a week from our dining venues. They repackage this food into meals and distribute to the needy. We are working on partnering with the Committee of 19 and creating a campus food pantry to provide support to students, employees and the local community.
I meet with the Auburn Real Food Challenge and discuss sustainability potential on campus. One great idea that came out of this was the "Real Silverware / Love Food, Not Waste" program. In three dining venues, we have introduced metal silverware as an option instead of using the plastic disposables. It has had great response, and in the first two months, the metal was used over 30,000 times! The Office of Sustainability has also partnered with us on this venture to inventory and help educate the campus on the efforts.
4. What brought you from England to the U.S. and specifically Auburn, Ala. to become our senior executive chef?
I was a dumb 19-year-old with a vision of living in the U.S. I came on a one-way ticket and $200 to my name, and believe me, it was an eye-opening lesson in life! I lived in Florida for 15 years, but in my last year in Orlando we got hit by three hurricanes, so very shortly afterward I took a position at the Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center. The senior executive chef position came up at Auburn in 2007 and gave me the opportunity to join the Auburn Family. Having a new career direction and helping to build a great food service program has given me a wonderful five years and gets better every year!
5. What is your favorite part about the Auburn campus and atmosphere?
Southern hospitality is alive and kicking at Auburn! From the positivity and excitement of the students, to the relationships being built with Auburn faculty and staff, it makes my job so easy to enjoy. The atmosphere on campus definitely keeps me young-at-heart, and I love to have fun at work. I relish seeing Jordan-Hare as I drive down Donahue on my way in, especially on game days! WAR EAGLE!