Chef looks back on U-M culinary transformation

Chef Nelson "Buzz" Cummings searing scallops on the stove

Buzz Cummings

Standing anxiously in the corner, Chef "Buzz" watches as his dish is served to 30 hungry students in a private dining room at South Quad. They are sampling a new creation: a donut filled with chipotle chocolate and pork.

As the students finish their final course of newly engineered recipes, they give feedback on their favorite dish to the university chefs. "It was definitely the chocolate pork donut," the majority of them say.

In astonishment, he smiles.

Nelson "Buzz" Cummings, chef de cuisine in research and development at Michigan Dining, grew up east of Cleveland in Mentor, Ohio, with his mother and grandmother, both of whom loved to cook.

"My grandmother had a great taste for food. She mixed ingredients in perfect combination. Home is where my taste buds first resonated from," he says.

Later, as a college student trying to pay tuition at Grand Valley State University, Cummings started busing tables at an Italian restaurant. The owner hired an older Sicilian chef who was passionate about his cooking, and Cummings saw an opportunity to learn.

"The old chef treated me like a son. I would get up every day at 5 a.m., cook with the chef for three or four hours without pay, and then start my shift busing tables," he says.

After this experience, he pursued a culinary arts degree at Schoolcraft College and worked at several restaurants before coming to U-M. He has been working as a chef for 27 years at various dining rooms across the university.

How a medical crisis inspired healthier eating

Following a diagnosis of cancer in 2012, Cummings decided to embrace healthier eating, incorporating more plant-based recipes and ancient grains into his diet. He carried this over to his work at U-M, aligning with the university's sustainability transformation, which began in 2006.

"I was encouraged by the dining department to purchase more organic and locally grown ingredients," he says. "The change wasn't easy, but it was worth it."

The first local dinner at the university was served at East Quad in 2006. Michigan Dining now works with local suppliers such as Lesser Farms, Todosciuk Farms, Washtenaw Food Hub, West Michigan Beef Co. and Grazing Fields, and the dining food is now about 13-15 percent locally provided. Cummings asked U-M students to come up with a slogan, and "Go Blue, Eat Local" began to represent the movement.

Cummings has been involved in many sustainability initiatives inside and outside U-M. Last October, he worked with the catering director at the Michigan League to research and develop new Indian dishes for their menu.

He has participated in demonstrations at the local Michigan Dining Farmers Market, featuring locally grown vegetables, and has embraced the Menus for Change conference hosted by the Culinary Institute of America. In February, he worked on creating healthy Asian cuisine at the Lunar Ball tasting in Ann Arbor. He even has his own garden at home, which he tends to regularly.

Something new every day

When describing his cooking style, Cummings says, "It is always transforming. I try to learn something new every day. Primarily, I like to cook food with less fat and refined sugar, and more white flour and whole grains."

He has influenced his family to do the same, getting together with them each week to make healthy dishes such as sushi.

Looking back on his career and his influence on the U-M dining community, Cummings says he feels grateful to play a role in the university's movement towards sustainability.

"You really get to, at the end of the day, see your work and how you impact the people around you. It's incredibly rewarding."

By Meg Bauer. Reprinted with permission of The University Record.