Catch-up cuisine

BY LINDY STEVENS

Published September 16, 2008

For the main course: apple and cranberry crepe flambé or braised beef with root vegetables served in a blueberry wine reduction. Then for dessert, chocolate zucchini cake or a slice of pie made with fresh Maine blueberries.
Diners enjoy their meals atop rich hardwood tables complete with cloth napkins and vases filled with fresh flowers from the school’s garden. The floor-to-ceiling windows look out to a campus buzzing with activity.
These are the offerings of Thorne Dining Hall at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, a college cafeteria that could be mistaken for a four-star restaurant if it weren’t for the twice-daily patronage of customers who pay with their student ID cards.
Bowdoin has long been a leader in fine cafeteria cuisine. The University of Michigan has not. But Bowdoin’s dining system isn’t just a gratuitous favor to its students. Universities are funneling money into deluxe amenities in the hopes that plush dorm rooms will put them above the competition in the hearts, minds and stomachs of prospective students.
Any resident of Markley Residence Hall could tell that the University has never based its pride on its dining halls, which provide waffle irons where Michigan State University might place cinnamon bun chefs. But the recently opened Hill Dining Center blows away the rest of campus’s cafeterias for atmosphere and variety, suggesting the University administration has realized it has to play catch up to stay competitive.
“It all points to national trends at schools and colleges to provide more contemporary facilities, to meet the expectations of current students, and to anticipate the needs of future students,” University Housing spokesman Peter Logan said.
The Princeton Review surveys more than 150,000 college students coast to coast to monitor which campus’s pizza is cooked to perfection and which serves mystery meat in the name of Salisbury steak. While the University’s dining system isn’t listed among the 20 worst, it’s definitely not among the 20 best, either.
Logan said the University’s dining system only aspires to keep up with the typical standard for campus eats.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re at the cutting edge here, because there are some universities and schools that have been investing in their residential and dining facilities sooner than we have,” Logan said. “I would say we’re probably in the middle of where universities are trying to go in terms of providing more contemporary residential and dining experiences.”
Connected to the rear of Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall, Hill Dining Center features marketplace-style service stations, like a stone pizza oven and a wok kitchen, two stories of seating and wall-sized windows looking out to Palmer Field. Resembling additions at University of California at Los Angeles, Cornell University and the University of Notre Dame, the $65 million project is the first cafeteria added to campus since Bursley Residence Hall opened in 1967.
The Hill Dining Center is the first piece of the Residence Life Initiative, a plan created in 2004 for a campus-wide facelift intended to provide students living on campus a better quality of life. The next phase of the plan will be realized when the $175 million North Quad residence hall opens in 2010. The new dorm will have a similar marketplace style dining hall and offer residents suite-style living.
According to some current students, the ambience of the new dining center is a big step forward, but the food — well, that still leaves a little to be desired.
“It’s a totally new building and totally new everything here, and it almost feels like you’re in a restaurant, so when I came here I was in that sort of mode,” LSA sophomore Scott Templin said. “And then I got my food and I was like ‘Oh wait, it’s just dorm food,’ so it’s sort of a psychological effect.”
But while brightly colored trays and dishes, multi-level seating and natural lighting add serious presentation points to fresh rotisserie chickens and spinach tofu, the important thing is how everything tastes. Templin added that although the selection is much larger, “the food is just the same as most other (cafeterias).”
Stone-oven pesto pizza is a far cry from what University upperclassmen remember of their dining hall experiences, but the recipe for luring students with picky pallets is far from perfect –– especially when Virginia Tech University has New York strip steaks that are cut and grilled to order and a tank filled with whole Maine lobsters available seven days a week.
Long before the University of Michigan deigned to cater to students’ comfort with the Residence Life Initiative, other universities were serving their students restaurant cuisine on a Ramen noodle budget.
Rick Johnson, director of dining services at Virginia Tech, said students can afford high-end eats because their meal plans work like a debit card. Instead of a set number of meals for the 18,500 students who elect to eat on-campus in Blacksburg, Va., the system lets them choose what they eat and how much they fork over for food.
“What makes it a little bit different from a traditional meal plan, is that we capture up front some of our base costs like utilities, salaries and debt service,” Johnson said. “The only thing we don’t capture is the actual cost of the food.”
So after covering a base rate of $760 per semester, students who opt for the “mega flex plan” are left with $530 to spend on everything from London broil to hand rolled sushi ¬¬–– and they don’t pay anything more than the cost of the ingredients. At J.P’s Chop House, one of the school’s 11 dining centers, students with a meal plan get a 50 percent discount on dishes like sautéed salmon or sea scallop provençale, and items like rib-eye steak sell for a market price of about 82 cents an ounce.
That same discount applies at commercial chains on campus, including Au Bon Pain and Cinnabon. And for more traditional cafeteria-style dining, the deal gets even better with a 67 percent discount for unlimited access to dishes like chicken cacciatore, vegetable tempura with steamed Japanese rice, and a selection of cakes and tarts prepared by the school’s executive pastry chef.
“Students want healthy food, they want fresh food, they want to see it prepared to order and prepared in front of them,” Johnson said. “The old days of the cafeteria where you made bulk food in mass, in this huge kitchen, and brought it out to the serving line are over and have been over for a while.”
Although Virginia Tech students without a meal plan pay only cents less than University students paying cash at the Hill Dining Center, $10.15 versus $10.75, schools across the country are beating the University’s dining system in not only quality but also cost.
While the University’s meal plan options range from $1,685 to $2,245 a semester for most students, unlimited meal plans at Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia cost $1,290 and $1,645 respectively. At Georgia, that price includes a dining location open 24 hours and parking at no extra charge.
Mike Floyd, executive director of food services at Georgia, said those are the kinds of perks necessary to keep students, whom he calls customers, happy with every aspect of their dining experience.
Floyd will be the first to tell you, though, that options are what students value most. And from southern favorites like fried chicken and black-eyed peas, to chicken chimichangas with black bean salsa, Floyd said Georgia’s menu is designed to please a generation that has grown up surrounded by international foods and expects more than just the meatloaf and mashed potatoes of their parents’ college years.
“I would say that today’s student is the most educated that we’ve ever seen in college food service as far an understanding of food,” Floyd said. “They have an appreciation for fine restaurant dining in their local communities and they’re a part of the food court generation where everybody gets something different.”
Universities across the country are adapting to a new kind of student population that expects more out of their meals than ever before. A trip to the dining hall isn’t just a study break to stifle hunger pangs with a side of green bean casserole anymore. For today’s undergraduates, eating on campus is a social event, and at Bowdoin College, students have made it clear that when they come to eat, festivities should be on the menu.
In response to student demand, the chefs at Bowdoin came up with a concept they call “Super Snack.” Held every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, from at 10 p.m. to 1 a.m,, students can go to Thorne Dining Hall for high-quality, late-night eats.
Serving foods like fresh fruit, grilled cheese sandwiches and a variety of breads and hummus, Michele Gaillard, associate director of dining at Bowdoin, said the weekend event complete with music, has become “wildly popular,” among students.
“It’s like a little cocktail party without the cocktails,” Gaillard said.
And with mixers like that, it isn’t hard to see why the dining hall menu is the most visited page on Bowdoin’s website.
But whether it’s the Mongolian grill at Georgia, where students can pick from seasonings, sauces and ingredients to be prepared by a professionally trained chef, or Bowdoin’s peanut grinding machine purchased in response to requests for natural peanut butter, the bottom line is that students have demands and schools are starting to listen.
That also means that some schools have had to clean up their act and start preparing meals with a healthier approach.
At Notre Dame, flax seeds are seated next to salt and pepper shakers so students can sprinkle on extra nutrients. Bowdoin grinds all of their meats in-house to control the fat content in things like ground beef. At schools nationwide, as well as here at the University, cooking with trans-fat free oil has become the norm.
And of course, how could any modern cafeteria be complete without a nod to going organic? At Bowdoin, two large gardens tended by a full-time garden manager produce things like corn, blueberries, squash and yellow tomatoes that are cooked up in the school’s two kitchens and served with almost every meal. An on-campus farmer’s market sells the excess produce directly to students. As of 2007, 20 percent of Bowdoin’s dining hall budget was spent on locally produced goods.

Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen

Schools like the University of Georgia have also made a push toward sustainable dining systems, with locally purchased peaches, peanuts and chicken making regular appearances on daily menus. At the University, only East Quadrangle’s cafeteria regularly serves produce grown locally.
This newfound consideration for the environment is also beginning to show up at schools like the University of California at Santa Cruz and George Mason University, which have ditched meal trays to discourage students from taking more food than they can eat.
Mike Lee, director of residential dining services at the University, said something like going trayless could happen at a few dining halls, but wouldn’t work campus-wide.
“At some of the operations, doing away with trays, the operations just don’t lend themselves to that,” Lee said.
He pointed to East Quad, where a lot of dishes are kept in the seating area, rather behind a serving line, as a place where trays could someday be on the way out.
“We’re trying to look at which (dining halls) would work and what I want to do is have us working with the students who live there and say, ‘How can we do this?’ ‘What makes sense?’ so we can involve them in the process,” he said.
But the real question is whether lobster, local produce and eco-friendly cooking actually influence which college acceptance letter students will choose. The answer from dining directors across the country: maybe.
Johnson said students have told him Virginia Tech’s dining services were the deciding factor in their college decision. And at Bowdoin, with a cold climate and long winters, the dining hall can often be a selling point. But for the University of Michigan, which has academics and athletics to make up for amenities, catering to students’ pickier tastes might not need to be a priority.