January 17, 2003
by Anne Krapfl
Karen Miskell Larson is the assistant director, catering, for ISU Dining.
Photo by Bob Elbert.|
Decorated Rice Krispie bars on lollipop sticks for the opening of a
childcare center. A cheese block carved into "ISU" and little frosted
football cookies for game day patrons. Survivor theme parties. A 3-D
campanile cake for a graduation day brunch. The Cyclone athletic logo
painstakingly carved into the sides of melons for an alumni gathering. An
eight-foot-wide butterfly cake (enough cake for 2,000) to open Hazel's
Kitchen, the new Reiman Gardens café.
If it sounds like too much fun to be "work," toss in standard 10-hour days
and weekend work during at least half of a year's Saturday-Sunday combos.
This job belongs to Karen Miskell Larson, a 26-year veteran of food service
at Iowa State and head of the catering arm of the new ISU Dining.
"I do work weird hours and I work a lot of hours," Larson said. "But I have
a wonderful staff, a lot of energetic, creative people. We recognize that
every event is important. The goal is to make them all different without
driving our employees crazy."
As ISU Dining emerges from the blending of food operations in the residence
department and Memorial Union, Larson's catering oversight will include
Reiman Gardens, the Memorial Union and Scheman Building and catering to all
campus buildings. On Jan. 1, food service staff in the Memorial Union
officially became university employees. Larson estimates that the full
merger of the operations -- including standardizing computers and software,
merging and editing recipe files, and training employees -- will be at least
a five-year process.
Merging catering services is something she has practiced. From its
beginnings in the early 1980s until 2001, catering was an additional duty
for each of the residence department's dining locations. Stewart Burger's
resignation from the ISU Dining director's post in 2001 forced some
accelerated changes and Larson was named catering coordinator. In July of
that year, residence catering was centralized out of the Wallace-Wilson
Commons, where Larson's team currently works. Since November, a centralized
bakery -- for the residence department, the Memorial Union and the Scheman
Building -- has operated in the Knapp-Storms Commons. The bakery, staffed
now from midnight to 7 p.m., is moving toward a 24-hour operation. Bakers
prepare everything from breadsticks and banana bread to tiered wedding cakes
-- or a butterfly cake, if you prefer.
Also in the works are plans to hire an executive chef and sous (assistant)
chef to coordinate large catering events more easily and elevate menu
The goal? Simple. Build "one of the best campus catering services in the
The coast or bust
Larson grew up on a farm outside Story City amid grandmothers and a mother
who were good cooks and farm helpers who needed to be fed. She helped
prepare meals and acquired skills and interest in things culinary. 4-H
projects gave her further practice. While a student in Iowa State's hotel,
restaurant and institutional management program in the early 1970s, she
worked as a cook at Riverside Manor nursing home in Ames and later at the
grill in the old Memorial Union Commons. Her first job after graduation -- a
temporary one, she assumed -- was as a supervisor in banquet services for
Memorial Union dining.
Larson had her eyes set on the East Coast, a career in perhaps restaurants
or a university food service. She visited a friend in New York City her
first summer out of school and also spent time investigating Boston. A bit
to her surprise, she returned home with a changed heart.
"I still love to visit, but it just wasn't home to me. Too much cement," she
Her interest in travel, both domestic and abroad, has served as more than
"I have traveled in Germany, France, Italy and most of the United States,
including Alaska and Hawaii," Larson said. "I think this has given me
appreciation for different foods and creativity for planning parties."
3,000 game-day meals
Larson's former academic adviser, Tom Walsh, hired her in residence dining
in 1977, where she worked a 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift for six years as
assistant manager of the Knapp-Storms dining center. Then it was on to
Linden Hall, where she served as dining manager -- and where residence
catering was launched.
It all started with special events for Sharon and Tom Galloway, former dean
of the College of Design.
"They entertained as part of his dean duties and we did catering on the side
for them," Larson explained.
Soon after, she and Burger put together a proposal to provide meals and
snacks to patrons in the football stadium's four suites during home games.
Over 20 years, that service has grown to 3,000-plus meals on game day, from
individual parties in the stadium's 23 sky suites, to a buffet for media
members, to meals for visiting potential football student athletes and their
parents, to food at the president's pre-game party, and more.
"I coordinate all the events, but everyone helps on game day," said the
always-humble Larson. "Nearly all our management staff works those days."
After a decade at Linden Hall, Larson moved back to the Towers, as the area
coordinator for the two dining centers and coordinator of the residence
department's catering service. Eighteen months ago, her job became full-time
"I enjoy what I do and feel like I've been able to keep moving forward,"
Larson said. "I don't feel stagnant in my career."
She credits her staff, including part-time student help, for a lot of that
"I like working with the staff here. My 'employee challenges' don't compare
to what my friends on the coasts tell me about," she said.
"And it's great to meet alumni and other clients who are so positive, so
dedicated to Iowa State. They like to see our students doing a good job."
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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