There is a whole new look to Okenshield’s this fall, and Wednesday evening was the grand opening celebration of the recently renovated eatery in the Straight. To add a lively ambiance to the evening, a piano player serenaded diners, several large cakes commemorated the fresh appearance of the space and festive decorations contributed a cheerful touch.
The renovations were completed over the summer with three principal goals in mind. The first was “to open up and brighten up the place so that it would feel a lot more comfortable to students,” said LeNorman Strong, assistant vice president for student and academic services. This goal was set because “students have given us a lot of feedback that the old place felt dingy, felt closed in — it wasn’t as enjoyable as the other dining establishments, particularly Robert Purcell and North Star,” he explained.
Students responded well to the structural changes made to the dining facility.
“I think it’s nice — very open,” said Cara Palumbo ’04.
Meghan Garrity ’05 agreed: “The room is nicer, [and it takes] quicker to get your food,” she said.
The second aim was to expand the use of Okenshield’s beyond that of an ordinary dining hall.
“The Dean of Students’ office also wanted to have the opportunity to have it renovated so it would be more conducive to programs. That’s why there’s [a] big open area, so that student entertainment and other kinds of late-night programs [can] happen here at Willard Straight Hall,” Strong said.
One student proposed an idea for the enlarged space: “It’s good for a square dance. You could have a real hoedown,” said Jeremy Paley ’04.
One end of the large open serving area has a “Chef’s Table” for which the exact purpose has yet to be determined. Possibilities include dinners to highlight a particular topic of discussion which students would sign up for in advance.
“The third objective was to really improve the quality of the food,” Strong added.
Much of the changes directed at this objective were derived and executed by chef Bryan Roberts.
“One of the basic changes was style of service. We’ve gone from serving situations to everything [being] self-service,” Roberts said.
Changing to a self-service facility brought about several changes to the food stations, which all received new titles.
The salad bar is now called “Mesclun,” after the French term for mixed salad greens and herbs. The station that features Italian dishes such as pasta, meatballs, pizza and breadsticks is called “La Cucina,” which is Italian for “the kitchen.” The “Daily Fare” station offered several dishes for the grand opening, including dijon pork loin with apples, eggplant creole casserole, horseradish-chive mashed potatoes and chicken breasts with leeks.
“As far as the daily entrees, a lot of the products are similar to what we had done in the last year,” Roberts said.
He added that he has been working with the kitchen staff on “batch cooking, [using] fresh ingredients and preparing it properly in a healthy environment, versus a lot of deep frying and oils.” They will be placing “a lot of the emphasis of the entrees in the bars on grains, beans, legumes — that has been quite successful for us. We do a lot of pastas, a lot of noodles, a lot of different types of noodles,” Roberts explained.
The stir-fry station, called “Chef Hsi’s Wok,” is named after Hsi Wang, who nurtured made-to-order Asian stir fry to a student favorite at Okenshield’s before the renovation. Though the station has a different setup after the renovation, Wang is still involved.
“Chef Wang is still with us; he works the day shift. [He is] in more of a supervisory role. He’s been doing a lot of training, working with the staff. He’ll be the one in the morning setting the tone [in the wok area],” Roberts said. “Hsi Wang is still very active,” he assured.
The changes in the menu and the expansion of the stir-fry station led to some changes in food preparation.
“We had to modify some of the ingredients that we use because of the cost factors, but we’ve also increased variety — adding a couple more stations, the wok station, for instance. That station alone, we added some very expensive ingredients, thinking that people were going to try a little bit of everything,” Roberts said.
Another area of Okenshield’s is called “Specialties,” which offered an Indian menu for the grand opening labeled “Curry in a Hurry.” This station will offer several different options throughout the year, including a deli-style bar, which Roberts said has been requested. “With this new project, the deli and grill just didn’t fit, and with the proximity of the Ivy Room and Cascadeli upstairs, those that are looking for a deli sandwich have that opportunity,” he said.
The dessert station has been renamed “Finishing Touch” and offers an assortment of pies, cakes and cookies. There is also a freezer case with individual-serving ice cream cups.
“We need to focus on what we can do well here, within the confines of board operations and the financial parameters that that represents,” Roberts said. “[Wang] and I wrote the menu over the summer, and with some flexibility, we offer a rotating menu in the neighborhood of fifty to sixty different dishes.”
Prof. Frances Lee Mehta, Asian studies, a faculty fellow who leads dinner groups at Okenshield’s, was enthusiastic about the renovation.
“It is a 100-percent improvement — the food is better quality, everything is better,” she said.
However, some students expressed some reservations in their responses to the changes.
“I like the open dining area — and it’s nice that you can serve yourself now, but they should have revamped the food as well,” said Greg Sanders ’05.
David Sepulveda, who greets Okenshield’s diners at the door and takes their payments, said, “It’s what we’ve been waiting for for a long time; I’m glad it finally happened.”
He felt that students have had a positive reaction to the renovation.
“Most of the people have been pretty positive, because it’s brighter, it’s roomier and there are more choices in the types of stir fry. A lot of people like the [old system of] stir fry, but you had to wait 20 minutes. Now it’s very quick to go.”
Archived article by Tony Apuzzo