By Alyssa Schnugg
At 35 years old, Chef Michael Brainard has practically grown up in a kitchen. It’s that life-long journey that led him to Mississippi in the fall to become Ole Miss Dining’s Executive Chef.
“I was offered the job at Ole Miss in September, mid-semester,” Brainard told Hotty Toddy News recently. “I decided to pack up and leave Texas and come here.”
With well-known Texas chef Robert Brainard as a father, Brainard spent his early years around the foodservice industry with family before branching out on his at 15 years old to work in other restaurants.
He graduated in 2016 from the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Texas.
“I spent 10 years in the industry prior to deciding to go to culinary school,” he said. “I worked my way up and got to a point where I decided it was time to get a degree to go further in my career.”
He spent three years at Texas A&M as a chef where he served three former vice presents. His first true position as a chef was for a retirement community that served only commissioned military officers.
Brainard technically works for Aramark, a food service company contracted with Ole Miss to provide food at Rebel Market (formally known as Johnson Commons), The Dish at the Residential College and The Grill at 1810. However, Brainard said he and his team focus on being known as Ole Miss Dining, which is the logo on all of their work shirts.
“We try to align ourselves as much as possible with Ole Miss because at the end of the day, we do work for Ole Miss,” he said. “We’re here to support Ole Miss. So yeah, Aramark is the company that’s over us, but we align ourselves with our clients and with those here to make sure we’re providing the best services we can here and not necessarily what works in other locations.”
When Brainard arrived at Ole Miss, he spent the first month watching and learning what sold well, what didn’t, what students and faculty seemed to enjoy the most and asked around for what they’d like to see more of on the menu.
“Then, as I went further into it, some changes started happening, and they’re going to continue to happen,” he said. “We’re obviously going to continue to change because that’s the only way we can continue to do better. We really do try to listen to our clients and listen to what people want to see.”
While customers at Rebel Market have enjoyed some of the recent changes, two things on the menu will never change.
“Fried chicken Thursdays and fried catfish Fridays,” Brainard said. “Those are staples here.”
Some more recent changes include reworking the menu offered in the grill area at Rebel Market, now called Land Shark Grill.
“It’s no longer just a hamburger on a white roll every day,” Brainard said. “That’s still available if that’s what you want, but there is typically a specialty burger or sandwich each day. We’re adding some specialty stuff on our deli station like making our own pickles. Instead of buying a 5-gallon bucket of pickles, we are making them in-house.”
Pizza has received an upgrade as well, with the cooking staff using fresh ingredients to make the pizza dough and sauce in-house.
“All of our dough and sauce is made from scratch,” Brainard said. “We’re not buying a can of pizza sauce and opening it up and dumping it on frozen dough. We’re actually making the dough, letting it rest overnight, stretching it and putting the pizzas into the oven freshly made.”
Future plans include bringing in more fresh ingredients from local farms.
“There are a couple of farms we’re in communication with to get them on campus,” he said. “We’re also working with a couple of restaurants from Oxford and trying to develop relationships and get more people on campus.
“We want the people of Oxford to come here and know they’ll be taken care of, just as we take care of our folks here on the Ole Miss campus.”