Schooling colleges in matters of taste

Cooking: A movement to broaden students' culinary horizons hits home in the kitchen of Western Maryland.

March 24, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Alan Dolid, executive chef at Western Maryland College, remembers the conversation that made him realize he could do more for students than just cook their meals.

The setting was the dining hall. The subject was seafood.

Female student, staring at plate: "What's that?"

Dolid: "Shrimp."

The student remained perplexed, having never encountered a shrimp. Six years later, eating has become part of the education at the Westminster college. At both regular meals and in special culinary programs, students are being exposed to an array of entrees -- from steamed mussels to roasted Chilean sea bass. Dolid sometimes lectures on how to crack a lobster claw, or how to appreciate Italian white truffles that cost $1,800 a pound.

"When a student is getting ready to graduate, they should know the different items on a menu," Dolid said. "If they are interviewing for a job and go out for a nice dinner or lunch, there's a good chance they won't see chicken tenders or tacos."

(Note to prospective students: The dining hall at Western Maryland still offers chicken tenders and a taco bar.)

Dolid's efforts to broaden students' culinary horizons mirror a nationwide trend. Traditionally, college cafeterias offered a predictably starchy meal-of-the-day, such as roast beef with mashed potatoes and bread. In the past 10 years, many have revised the menus to include more varied and popular choices.

But the choices, for the most part -- pizza, chicken sandwiches, fries -- remained simple.

Now, some schools are experimenting with the exotic -- for several reasons, say chefs and food service managers.

Increasingly, they view as part of their job the need to introduce students to the kinds of meals they may encounter at restaurants and in the off-campus world.

Also, more college students today are demanding diversified, often international choices, and the chefs say they are happy to indulge them.

At Western Maryland, a private school with 1,500 students, the dining hall offers a theme dinner each month to introduce a specialty.

March's theme was seafood, and the dining staff carted in 180 pounds of shrimp, 20 dozen soft-shell crabs, 500 clams, 200 salmon filets and 200 mahi-mahi filets for the 850 students expected to dine.

"We'll still have some saying we don't have any choices," said David Huff, the dining hall's production manager, guarding a 30-gallon vat of bubbling seafood bisque.

Those students, Huff said, may be satisfied with pizza -- still served by the cafeteria at every lunch and dinner to satisfy the less daring.

The National Association of College and University Food Services, a trade group that represents dining departments at 660 schools, began three years ago to offer member chefs workshops taught by the the Culinary Institute of America.

"Food is what it's all about," said Joe Spina, executive director of the association, adding that many schools began trying new menu options the past five years. "Food is what we do. And delivering innovative food, quality food, cutting-edge food -- why not? It's a logical focus."

Dolid, who graduated from the institute in 1978, said his culinary ventures don't strain his budget. On most days, the menu is tame -- Monte Cristo sandwiches, pasta, a vegetarian dish, salad and tacos were all offered one recent afternoon.

He saves the more advanced meals for a monthly "Adventures in Dining" program, which is available on a first-come, first-served basis to students participating in the college's meal plan but is limited to about 30.

A menu last month included quesadillas with buffalo milk mozzarella cheese, sun-dried tomato pesto, prosciutto di parma and rosemary oil as well as an exotic mushroom stew with mascarpone dumplings and foie gras.

"Very hoity-toity," said Dolid, whose office walls are adorned with posters reading "Just Veggin' " and "Give Me Chocolate or Give Me Death."

Cecelia Bowens has worked in WMC's cafeteria for 34 years -- students call her "Mom" -- and said most students love the new options.

She had never heard of foie gras but said it tasted good and that she was glad to dish it onto students' plates. "Sometimes I can't pronounce it," said Bowens. "But I'll get it out there."

Not everyone is impressed. Katie Davis, a junior, said she hadn't heard of "Adventures in Dining," and that while nacho and taco bars have been nice additions since her freshman year, she would hesitate to rave about the school's food.

"They've tried to do more, but half of everything, it's fattening," she said. "It's cafeteria food. It's not gourmet."

Harvard University is another school working to give students culinary exposure.

Executive chef Michael Miller said students two decades ago would never rant about the unhealthiness of their food or nitpick about offerings, but that they are becoming choosy.

"Students are so much more sophisticated now," Miller said. "Twenty years ago, students weren't seeing themselves as customers. You just went to school, you lived in the dorms and you ate the meals."

Harvard dining halls now set up "culinary display stations" every other week, where students can sample international dishes -- pad thai was one recent offering. One night a year, the university orders 6,200 lobsters for the student body; a food service employee offers lessons to those unversed in eating large crustaceans. Last year, Miller began teaching a two-week course for seniors titled "Cooking for the Culinarily Challenged," where they learn everything from "knife skills" to stir-fry cooking.

"I was having all these students come back and say, `I was in D.C. for an internship and all I ate in my apartment was Top Ramen,' " said Miller. "They're all going to get jobs or go to grad school, and once they were out of the dining hall experience, where would they be?"

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