A biweekly publication for faculty and staff

Associate Director Helps Strengthen Cultural and Social Bonds Through Food

April 6, 2015

Sean MurraySean Murray believes he is in an interesting place at a key moment in history. 

“Everything that challenges mankind is represented in the microcosm of UC Merced in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Murray, who joined Dining Services as associate director in November 2014. “The university’s mission takes on those challenges at every level, so Dining Services has a role to play.”

One such challenge Murray said, is figuring out how can we live better today with the intention of enhancing the ability of future generations to live well, too. 

“I am glad to put my shoulder to the wheel of that question at every level of my job,” he said.

Murray is no stranger to California, having lived here until 1986 — during another long drought — when he left for graduate school at Cornell University in New York. It was there he met his wife and longtime partner, Ursula Stock. A couple of years later, they moved to Michigan’s north coast and opened a full-service restaurant and bakery, and they raised three sons, Neil, Shayle and Blake. 

Before returning to California, Murray worked in management at Northern Michigan University’s Dining Services. His day-to-day duties included menu and recipe development, purchasing, nutritional accounting, financial and budget management, staff training and IT/data work with the campus's computerized management systems. He also gained experience working with residence dining halls, a convenience store, Starbucks, several themed retail food operations, catering services and a commissary production facility.

Now, Murray is delighted to be putting his years of experience to work at UC Merced. The Sweet Water Café still requires much of Ursula’s attention, so she lives in Michigan for the foreseeable future. 

Please describe what your job entails. 

My job is to provide leadership to dining, retail and catering services that enhance campus life for the university community. That naturally involves supporting Dining Services Director Jason Souza with everything necessary to provide our services while supporting the division’s and campus’s missions.

What are some of the most rewarding things about your job? 

I am satisfied because I bring a skill set that allows me to contribute significantly to Dining Services and support the staff in providing service to the campus community. I am also grateful for the challenging opportunity to learn and grow professionally. The work here is engaging, and I like that.

In the dining halls, I see the beautiful faces of the future generation of America. I enjoy working with them and serving them. Meals together strengthen cultural and social bonds of campus life. I am witness to this every day. It is such a joy. I am delighted to support students in their commitment to attaining higher education in this way. 

What new initiatives/projects/plans are you looking forward to in the coming year?

I am excited about improving our student employment training system such that the experiential learning and leadership skills our student employees acquire on the job align with the learning outcomes of the student affairs division. Food service is essentially a just-in-time manufacturing, production and service delivery system. We make tangible, perishable products and create an intangible experience through service delivery. The student work experience in this environment can be leveraged to support any future work and leadership endeavor. I believe we can make this training and development more valuable for our student staff by highlighting skills that readily transfer to other work environments.

Tell us something about you that people on campus might not know.

I love to cook and prepare food. I’ve been cooking, baking and butchering all my life. It is my art form — often a form of active meditation — and sometimes a therapy. I enjoy the economy and process of the culinary arts. It is my culture to bring friends and family around the elements of an enjoyable meal. 

Lately, I have been obsessed with fermenting kimchi. For those who don’t know, kimchi is like sauerkraut, but Korean and spicy with different vegetables. Since arriving here, I have made two batches of kimchi. The first was traditional style. The second batch I made with non-traditional vegetables. I call it San Joaquin Valley kimchi because I used ingredients from T&D Willey Farms, or red kimchi when I use beets.

I eat kimchi like a condiment with everything, but in particular I like to eat kimchi and sharp cheddar on sourdough bread with mayonnaise. It’s just a delicious sandwich. I am grateful to the farmers for all the good food they produce, especially when they improve the soil over time. Salute to the farmers!