It’s All about Options: College fare ranges from cafeteria to gourmet café, hearty to healthy—not to mention homemade
It’s dinnertime at the DUC, and students are lining up for the standard cafeteria-style fare of pizza, pasta, salad, and a steaming assortment of hot dishes. But in the space outside the food service area, something special is happening. Long tables are set up and artfully laden with a vast array of colorful foods: carrots, broccoli, salmon, potatoes, filet mignon, shrimp, bananas, cream, berries, and too many other comestibles to count. In front of this impressive display, two cooking stations are a blur of activity. Led by chefs instantly recognizable in their uniforms and tall hats, teams of sous-chefs are chopping, stirring, sautéing, and arranging at lightning speed.
This is the second annual Copper Chef competition hosted by Sodexho, Emory’s food service company, in which Sodexho chefs and student cooking teams face off in a messy, delicious-smelling battle of skill, wits, and culinary creativity. Like the Iron Chef competition on which the event is loosely based, the contest requires that the cooks incorporate a secret ingredient into every dish. And this year, the ingredient is one most Emory folks know well: Coca-Cola.
“What do you think?” says student Gillian Locascio 09C, presenting an elegant plate of strawberry shortcake, drizzled with a Coke-based glaze, with a flourish. Junior Jason Haensly 08C nods his approval as she carries the dish toward the panel of judges, a random assortment of staff, faculty, and students.
Haensly and Locascio are president and treasurer of the Culinary Club, a student organization created to promote interest in the cooking and eating of healthy, good-tasting food. Club members comprise the cooking team of Chef Ephraim Lawson, executive chef at the DUC, who is competing against campus executive chef Michel Wetli and members of the Food Advisory Committee at Emory (FACE), a student group that meets with and advises Sodexho regularly. This year, after judges have tasted offerings prepared with all manner of Coke sauces and reductions, the contest is declared a tie.
The hotly competitive Copper Chef event was conceived to put faces and chef’s hats behind the institutional food most students take for granted. “It’s a chance to showcase our chefs’ specialties and abilities and to get students involved,” says Suzanne Banner, marketing manager for Sodexho at Emory. “It gives students the opportunity to see what our chefs can really do.”
It also is part of a growing effort to educate students, most of whom are on their own for the first time, about food and nutrition. For those on the meal plan, options are plentiful, but making smart choices can be challenging. University dining facilities include the primary dining hall, Ultimate Dining at the DUC; the Cox Hall food court, with outlets from Burger King to burritos to packaged sushi; and more than ten other venues scattered across campus, including old-style grills like Dooley’s Den at the Depot and lighter salad-and-sandwich fare at the Woodruff Library’s Jazzman’s Cafe.
In general, students find that campus food, like most mass-produced food, can be high in fat and salt. But Sodexho—one of three institutional food giants in the country—is working closely with interested students, faculty, and staff members to provide healthier options.
“Sodexho has been really good about working with us and trying to repond to criticism,” says Matthew Poliner 09C, cochair of FACE.
Patty Erbach, University food service liaison, says the students’ interest in health reflects their backgrounds and also a national trend toward better eating. “We have such a smart, high-quality student,” she says. “They come from affluent backgrounds, so they have experienced healthy, whole foods and eating out. We have requests for a lot of different types of food.”
For instance, Emory cooks used to serve fried chicken every Thursday night, but recently switched to lower-fat rotisserie chicken. The Emory Dining website offers a link to a special site devoted to “Balance Mind, Body, and Soul,” with health tips and advice on life balance. There also is a brochure for vegan and vegetarian diners.
The Culinary Club is another reflection of Emory students’ growing awareness of and interest in what they eat. Founded in spring 2005 by Haensly, Locascio, and secretary Nora Kleinman 08C, the club has caught the interest of more than a hundred students and has about thirty steady members. They gather monthly to cook together or watch a demonstration by a local chef or expert. They also have toured a local organic farm; partnered with a Thai student group to prepare Thai food; and participated in a soapbox derby to boost awareness of alternative fuel by serving food grown locally. The club tries to offer an educational component in their activities, such as studying the environmental benefits of local food, which does not travel thousands of miles via air-polluting trucks as does most conventional food.
But favorite events are those that involve just being together and cooking—and then, of course, sampling the fruits of their labor.
“There are many students out there who want to cook, but it’s so hard in college,” says Locascio, who is majoring in environmental studies. “We are starting to learn more about where food comes from and how that plays into issues of sustainability and the environment.”
Mostly, adds Haensly, “We’re just interested in giving students an outlet to cook and share the love of food.”—P.P.P.