Harvard recently welcomed Smitha Haneef as its new managing director of dining services. Haneef comes to Harvard from Princeton, where she was assistant vice president for university services. She brings with her a long and diverse career in food and hospitality services, beginning in five-star hotels in Hyderabad, India, through time spent running her own catering business in Birmingham, Alabama, to helping launch the LifeWorks Restaurant Group, a premium on-site restaurant division of the food service company Aramark.
Haneef spoke to the Gazette about her first weeks on the job hearing the perspectives of Harvard’s community members; upcoming enhancements to dining services based on community feedback; her commitment to nutrition, sustainability, diversity and inclusion; and what it means to be the first woman to lead dining services.
GAZETTE: You just began your time here at Harvard on April 5, yet you have hit the ground running. Talk about the work you’ve been doing during your first month here.
HANEEF: My initial observation is that everybody has been so welcoming and generous with their time and perspectives. I’ve also been impressed with the extraordinary measures Harvard has put into place with regard to COVID-19 and keeping community members safe. I’m particularly grateful that the University has maintained continuity of employment and benefits for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) workers throughout the pandemic, people who are an integral part of my team. And I’m so impressed with the individuals who make up our HUDS team, many of whom have remained on campus without interruption, and their devotion to their work during a thoroughly challenging time.
I’ve been spending my first weeks meeting with stakeholders across Harvard’s Schools and units, to learn about what is important to the community vis-à-vis hospitality, food, and service. I’ve visited all of the dining halls on campus, including those that are currently open, and met with faculty, staff, and students, including with members of the Committee on Student Life, and Undergraduate Council President Noah Harris and Vice President Jenny Gan. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Students Katie O’Dair, and their teams have been invaluable resources as well. And I’ve met with colleagues at many of Harvard’s graduate schools to hear their unique wants and needs. To me, listening is so important prior to problem-solving.
I was speaking with several faculty deans yesterday, and they all said that the dining halls are so much more than just eating. It’s where the community comes together. And while the various Schools may articulate this in different ways, it’s clear that the idea of “food building community” is central to people here at Harvard. And I believe that making that happen is a crucial part of my job.
GAZETTE: Have you begun to make any updates as of yet in terms of the services that HUDS provides?
HANEEF: This summer, we are going to begin to roll out some enhancements to the services we provide that align with the feedback of our community members related to nutrition, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion. We will be sharing more on these enhancements and new services over the coming months as we prepare for the return of students to campus in the fall.
In terms of inspiring the kind of ongoing dialogue with students, faculty, and staff that has brought us to make these updates, and hopefully which will continue to inform our work moving forward, I’ve begun to put together a strategic framework that gets into the essence of what HUDS should aspire to. This is a working framework, designed to take into account what matters most to Harvard’s community members. It is a way of creating a starting point for our community to react to, and to contribute to, and to help inform our long-term commitment to serving our community.
The strategic framework for hospitality and dining begins with community engagement. A second point of emphasis is food and agriculture; how can we support our students in their curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular work as they relate to food? One example: I’ve met with my colleague Tim Bowman from SEAS, and he spoke about the “Science & Cooking” course that has become so popular. How can HUDS find new and exciting ways to partner with faculty on projects such as this one? Can we support students through food and cultural celebrations? How do we support our athletes?
Advocacy is another point of emphasis, and in particular, how do we support students on the issues that matter to them? Sustainability, for example. Can we work with students in new and innovative ways to continue to make sustainable food a priority at Harvard? Can we look to expand on climate-forward menus, and increase the biodiversity of ingredients in our kitchens and recipes? Can we come up with ways to shape markets, so that we can promote quality ingredients that are biodiverse and that are produced locally?
Diversity and inclusion are also at the center of what matters to me. How do we celebrate diverse cultures through food?
Of course, there are also internal priorities within our department that we must focus on and that are critical to any successful operation, such as maintaining quality assurance, and the stewardship of our resources, finances, and assets.
GAZETTE: You mentioned that diversity and inclusion is of particular importance to you. Could you expand on that?
HANEEF: At Princeton, the vice provost of diversity and inclusion was an innovative partner with us. Heritage month was celebrated across campus, and campus dining had a major role to play. We would research the particular culture or cultures involved and find menus to support the celebrations of these communities on campus. Heritage months may not be the exact right fit at Harvard, or maybe they are, but my hope is that we are able to work with our colleagues and community and build something unique for what it is that we’re doing here.
GAZETTE: Your own experience has provided you with opportunities to work in the food service industry in locations as different as Hyderabad, India; Birmingham, Alabama; and Mountain View, California. And you’ve held roles ranging from chef to assistant vice president. How do your own life experiences contribute to your work, and in particular, to this focus on diversity?
HANEEF: My love of food really began at an early age. My family is originally from Andhra Pradesh, which is a South Indian state. We are from a Telugu-speaking, Hindu family. I grew up in a different part of India, though, on the East Coast, in a state called Odisha. My father was an aeronautical engineer, and my mother was a homemaker and social worker. And we lived in a small yet cosmopolitan township of about 3,000 to 5,000 families, where families from around the country came together for the company that employed my father. They brought their own unique languages, traditions, and foods along with them.
Growing up in Odisha, I was exposed to diversity as part of my upbringing, and I comprehend, fundamentally, my world through foods, cultures, festivals, and rituals.
My passion for community and cooking comes from my mother and my grandmother, who is my role model. She knew about sustainability, as it was part of our culture; she would use every part of every vegetable. And she knew about community through cooking; her kitchen was the heart of our household.
I began my career in hotels in India, but soon after, I came to the United States, where I started my own small catering business in Birmingham. I fell in love with Birmingham, and we still have so many wonderful friends there. Like in Odisha, in Birmingham the kitchen is the heartbeat of the community. And the community of chefs was small enough there that we got to know each other very well, and they embraced me, despite the fact that I was the new person.
I love the cuisine from Alabama. There is nothing quite like good barbecue with potato salad, and jalapeno corn bread. And I love fish, blackened on the grill. These are my favorite foods, even though they are different from those of my own culture, and I am so much richer as a person for having had the opportunity to experience them.
GAZETTE: Anything else you’d like to add?
HANEEF: Of course, there is so much history at Harvard, which has been nourishing students for more than 380 years. Yet I’m the first-ever woman in the role of leading hospitality and dining services. I think this is significant and gives me the opportunity to bring a new perspective, not only to how diversity is reflected in the food we serve, but also to how we continue to strengthen the services we provide, supporting our workforce, and everyone who comes to our campus. I look forward to drawing on this history, and all the incredible resources at Harvard, to build a shared vision for hospitality and dining that is increasingly inclusive, sustainable, and nutritious for our community.
Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.