By Thomas Meyer, a chef instructor in the School of Culinary Arts
When students walk in to the café for lunch, they have an opportunity to take a “trip” around the world. Our menus reflect our students, which is why they feature cuisine from countries around the world and our own neighborhoods.
For example, a menu based on dishes from Thailand included a spicy green papaya salad with tomatoes, long beans and peanuts—as well as Chiang Mai sausage with herbs and aromatics in a Thai curry over sticky rice. Another example of a highly popular menu focuses on American regional barbeque, including Texas-style beef brisket, Kansas City-style pork ribs and Carolina-style pulled pork, which are designed to be paired with creamed spinach or corn, macaroni and cheese, biscuits, cornbread—or a little bit of everything.
The beauty behind our menus is how involved the student are in suggesting and creating the dishes. Our courses have many international students, which means students can test an array of menu items simply by speaking to one another and researching recipes.
When I create each week’s menu, I play on the strengths of my students. If we have several from Morocco, for example, I’ll bring in lamb and work with them to create a menu that reflects its authentic dishes. I do the same by asking each of my students about their backgrounds and food knowledge, which means we focus on dishes that originate in a range of countries and counties. It’s important to balance the recipes we select to ensure the mix allows students to learn from one another and begin specializing in recipes and techniques—many of which they never imagined before this course.
The students who serve lunch are part of the Quantity Cooking course (named because we can see 400 or more guests come through for food), which challenges them in a variety of ways. When they’re not on the line actively serving at one of our café sessions, I often ask students to consider designing their own menus and present them to the class. We analyze where each dish is from, its flavor profile and associated traditions. These experiences not only help students get to know their classmates, it also exposes them to a variety of cultures, which they in turn bring to the entire college in the café.
Manning a station at the café isn’t simply about executing the art of cooking, it’s also about the mastery of the food itself—the ingredients, the cultures, and most importantly, beginning to know something about how or why people eat it as every day fare.
Anytime I watch one student explaining their country’s cuisine to another, I see pride in their eyes. Their classmates always listen very respectfully and ask questions. Experiences like these help our students begin to understand how fascinatingly different—and interconnected—we all are.