February 24, 2010

Taste Introspective and Going Underground

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I wait outside of Xeo’s in Collegetown. It’s freezing cold. The window is fully fogged, preventing me from seeing anything inside. At the very top of the window, someone has written, “UNDERGROUND,” with their finger in the condensation. There are drips of moisture falling down the window as I anxiously wait in the bitter cold. All I can see through the window is something golden. My intrigue grows by the minute.

Only a week and a half earlier, I received an e-mail inviting me to a Cornell Underground dinner. I RSVP’ed immediately, having been intrigued by the Underground (I understood they were a group of hotelies and architects, who combine atmosphere and food to create a unique dining experience) since I had first heard of them last spring. Then, they had organized a “Flavor Tripping” event at Risley, using “miracle fruit,” or synsepalum dulcificum as they are scientifically known, to modify the taste buds. I had never been to an event and had no idea what I was getting myself into, but nonetheless I was excited.

Finally, I am invited inside and sat down at a table (a glass top with artistic coal in it) with one chair facing a large golden box — real gold, I am informed, decorated with a chandelier of candles. I am given water, tea and a wooden box containing food that I am told to explore. The server explains that the meal today explores the flavors of chestnut, date and egg. These ingredients “simply characterize the savoriness and depth of flavor,” according to members of the Underground. Then I am alone.

I brace myself for what food may be in this box. I am not a “foodie” by any means. I have prepared for this dinner by suspending all of my reservations and rules about food. I lift off the first piece of the box (which holds the small cup of tea), revealing a glass of braised beef and dates with a poached egg on top. I take my only utensil, a spoon, and dig in. The textures are strange in my mouth, but I proceed entirely due to my respect for this group.

Eventually, I move on to the next and last level of the three dessert-like items, made presumably of chestnuts. The textures are unfamiliar, but I eat all three. I attempt to go back and finish the braised beef, but the taste changes after I have consumed my chestnuts so I excuse myself as I had been told to do.

Peter Roumanis ’10 was the brains behind this dinner, and much of the initial concept for the Underground, as he was looking for a creative outlet at Cornell to express his passion about food and the experience of dining.

“I honestly don’t think there was something that really intertwined the creative student bodies across the university, so I thought that it would be a perfect thing to get the hotelies who know the food and the design people like those in the fashion school and the architects and bring them together to create these events. So, I was emphasizing collaboration,” he explained.

Karli Miller-Hornick ’11, a devoted member who Roumanis intends to “pass the baton off to” following his graduation, found that the Underground provided experiences she couldn’t get in the Hotel School.

“The Hotel School doesn’t allow us to have freedom to express ourselves creatively, and the practical experience is a huge learning experience outside of school.”

While the hotel students put on a large-scale event each spring, Hotel Ezra Cornell, to show off their hospitality skills, the Underground members found that this was just not enough.

The group was born in fall of 2008, but didn’t attract the attention of the student body until their event at Risley. While the event received some criticism, as not all of the participants enjoyed the benefits of the “flavor tripping” miracle fruit, Roumanis emphasized that even though the taste sensation was not there, he believed that an appreciation for the installation art was just as essential.

It is this mingling of atmosphere, taste and appreciation of it that the Underground hopes to impart on the Cornell community.

“I really want students to be aware of what we’re doing, because food as art … is not an idea that the masses hold yet,” Roumanis explained. “One of the things I wanted to expose Cornell students to is experiencing food outside of a restaurant because then they can see it differently, and it shatters their expectations of what consumption is. You aren’t going to these events to fill your belly. I want you to come and experience [artistry].”

For this specific event, Roumanis conceptualized the idea and shared it with the group.

“It was different [for this event] because when I approached Giffen [Ott ’11], I didn’t have any idea of what the dish would be at that time. I just knew there would be one dish and one diner at a time,” Roumanis said.

Ott worked with Roumanis to realize his visions of having dinners eaten in an isolated experience, which Roumanis believed would make people feel less nervous.

“By completely isolating everyone and by putting them almost on display, it kind of conditions them to go into restaurants in the future and not feel exposed. I wanted people to go into these restaurants and not necessarily feel that what they’re experiencing is over the top and perhaps pretentious. I wanted to trivialize that through what I was doing.”

Roumanis guided Ott, who added his own creativity as he joined the Underground ,so that he could continue to make beautiful things.

“I built everything: The table, the wall of gold, the chandelier,” Ott explained.

As for the food, Roumanis imagined the menu using his taste memories. Because of this unique skill, he explains, “When I conceptualize a dish, I don’t need to make it anymore like I used to.”

Andrew Vlock ’11 attempted the challenging recipe.

“I was given a variety of things to cook far beyond my skill level. I was up for hours trying to get those [poached] eggs to work,” Vlock explained.

Challenges are not unusual within the Underground, whether they be with the cooking, the concept, the materials or financially.

“We don’t operate on a profit,” Miller-Hornick said. “We’re all willing to take hits to our own pockets to make it happen.”

But the passion of the group and being around people who believe in their mission, like the owner of Xeo’s who donated the space and other foodies who have donated things like champagne and glassware, keep Cornell Underground afloat to spread their message.

If you are interested in attending one of the events (the group plans on organizing more events this semester) they encourage you to contact crnlunderground@gmail.com.

Original Author: Cara Sprunk