Every spring, dietetics students of Nutritional Sciences 4880: Applied Dietetics in Food Service Systems learn how to operate and manage a food service system with practical, hands-on application culminating in themed dinners in West Campus dining rooms. Students are “divided into teams to work with Cornell Dining chefs to design a nutritionally balanced, yet creative and delicious dinner for the greater Cornell community,” and several of us in the dining department had the pleasure of experiencing and reviewing each themed dinner this year. Here’s what we thought!
William Keeton House: French Countryside
By: Katie Zhang
Greeted by the soothing melodies of classical music the moment I stepped through the door, the French Countryside dinner at William Keeton House set the tone for an elegant and refined dining experience right on West Campus. The dietetics students of NS 4880: Applied Dietetics in Food Service Systems transformed the dining hall into French countryside with crisp white tablecloths and lavender napkins at every table and the little touches here and there — glass jars of twinkling fairy lights, artfully arranged table flowers and vines sprawling across the walls created a classy and opulent atmosphere. I felt like I was some VIP member at a fancy, high-end restaurant, and the food didn’t dispel this fantasy, either.
My friends and I were treated to a full course of authentic French cuisine, starting off with mini Croque Monsieurs. While at first glance they looked like basic ham and cheese sandwiches, my friends, who got the Croque Monsieurs, were blown away by the taste. The touch of melted cheese on the top of the sandwich added the perfect amount of crunch and texture to complement the savory cheese and ham combo on the inside. We weren’t too sure why they were considered “mini,” as they were the size of a normal sandwich and rather filling on their own, but it didn’t stop my friends from getting seconds to munch on later on in the meal. The Salade Nicoise, a French salad which traditionally consists of tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, Nicoise olives and anchovies, came next on the menu. While the one at Keeton stayed mostly true to the authentic French version in terms of ingredients, it was too earthy for me and was not my favorite.
The main dishes that followed were hits. The Coq Au Vin — a French dish of chicken braised with wine — was tender, savory and bursting with flavor. The Cod Meuniere Amandine didn’t disappoint either; the fish was well-seasoned and moist with the perfect breaded outside, giving the cod a rich texture. Only the Ratatouille a la Provencale fell short of expectations — the sauce was on the watery side and the tofu was hard and bland. The side dishes that went with the meal weren’t remarkable either, as they tasted like regular dining hall food and didn’t make any lasting impressions.
However, the real stars of the French Countryside dining experience were the desserts, which came last. The creme brulee was creamy and smooth, with the perfect amount of milky sweetness combined with the satisfying crunch of a well-caramelized sugar top. I couldn’t help but get another serving for myself as the lightness of the dish made it feel nothing like an overly indulgent treat that you’d feel guilty for eating too much of afterwards. The chocolate mousse was much denser and thicker than the creme brulee, but still fantastic on its own. It wasn’t overpoweringly chocolate-y and, despite its thickness, still had a soft, airy look and feel. Overall, the simple elegance of the surroundings and abundance of tastes, textures and flavors I was able to enjoy in the French Countryside spoke volumes to the care and effort the team of student dieticians put into making the meal a special one. It’s been one of the most luxurious dinners I’ve had in the dining hall, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it anytime soon.
Flora Rose House: Thai Festival of Lights
By: Rae Specht
The moment I walked into Flora Rose House last Tuesday for the Thai Festival of Lights-themed dinner, the warm scent of curry rushed over me.
It was packed. By 6:30 p.m., the lines were snaking across the dining hall, and I nibbled on fresh papaya while I waited. The aspiring dietitians of NS 4880: Applied Dietetics in Food Service Systems explained that “the goal is to keep the food simple and to make it as authentic as possible” while also taking into consideration budgetary controls and efficiency of production and service. “Thai food is universally appreciated,” we agreed, and it’s clear that the food service management team of this event took special care to dish out tasty creations for everyone. Nearly all of the side dishes and salads, which included Som Tum (green papaya salad), teriyaki braised greens and vegetable fried rice, were vegan or vegetarian. For a main entree, guests indulged in crispy Thai fried fish with ginger tamarind sauce, savory drunken noodles with chicken or mild massaman curry with crispy tofu. I opted for the papaya salad, braised greens, fried rice and curry tofu.
The bright, sweet papaya married with the pleasant acidity of the salad dressing was a wonderful combination that had me going back for seconds. The fried rice, a classic, was simple but executed well, and was a fine complement to the other elements of the meal. The braised greens could have done with more flavor and the tofu curry was certainly very mild, which left me slightly disappointed. As someone who enjoys spicy food, I would have preferred a stronger curry, but considering that the team was catering to upwards of 800 people, it’s clear they tried hard to maintain a balance that would satisfy many palates, an incredible feat I applaud them for.
What I was most excited for was dessert, which featured Thai iced bubble tea, sweet sticky rice with mango, crispy fried plantains and mango and coconut ice cream. Due to the high demand, I unfortunately missed out on the bubble tea, but I jealously eyed the smug passersby who beat me to it, and I heard mostly good things. The mango sticky rice was delicious. I heard a complaint from another diner that the rice was a bit undercooked, but the batch I received had a nice creamy consistency and a wonderfully sweet coconut flavor. The fried plantains were also superb: perfectly golden and speckled with sesame seeds. Paired with a scoop of mango ice cream, it was a spectacular finale to the meal.
Overall, I was very satisfied with what the students of NS 4880 brought to the table. The event was so well-executed, with careful consideration given to the smallest of details. Little paper lanterns floated in a small pool at the entrance, and twinkling lights trimmed the windows. Every table was covered in a white and deep purple tablecloth, and many featured an elegant centerpiece of floating white lilies.
I was blown away to learn about the months of planning that made this huge event happen, and was extremely impressed by the student management team who showed incredible skill, professionalism and knowledge as they engaged with guests and demonstrated their proficiency in running a large-scale food service operation.
Alice Cook House: Ithaca Nights
By: Isha Vaish
As I entered the Cook House dining hall, my ears were greeted by the hum of softly playing pop music boasting a chill “let’s go for a drive” vibe, and my eyes were met by cute fairy lights strung up across the ceiling, mimicking the image on the flyer. At the back of the hall was a large screen replaying images and videos of Ithaca’s beautiful gorges and waterfalls. Scattered around the hall were various stalls housing different dishes and drinks such as chili, s’mores and ginger beer. The hall was filled with long tables, elegantly decorated with folded lavender napkins and vases of white, lavender and yellow flowers adding a nice subtle pop of color to the stark white tablecloth.
The first dishes I tried were the Chili Fest duck chili and Ice Fest veggie chowder. The duck chili had no distinguishing flavor other than a slight acidic undertone. The taste of the dish was muddled as if I were eating it while down with a cold. The vegetarian chowder was slightly better; however, it tasted more like fondue with bits of vegetables. Next, I got a cup of Ithaca ginger beer which was refreshing but not what I expected, as it tasted just like a mixture of Sprite and ginger ale. Done with the beer, I made my way over to the s’mores station only to be let down again. Instead of an actual chocolate bar, only a sprinkle of chocolate sauce was drizzled across the marshmallow, taking away from the chocolate-y taste and gooey fun of eating a s’more. In general, the idea of having food stalls that represent different aspects of Ithaca’s food culture was a great idea, helping to create the atmosphere of a food festival rather than a usual dining hall dinner. However, my expectations with the quality of the dishes were not met, as they seemed to err on the side of the ordinary and basically tasted like normal dining hall food.
From the buffet line, I tried some Apple Fest mac and cheese, Seneca salt-seared asparagus, Finger Lakes bourbon mashed sweet potatoes, Indian Creek apple cider donut holes and tacos I DIY-ed at the taco bar. Overall, the mac and cheese was decent. The heaviness of the cheese sauce was undercut by the tiny bits of crisp red apple laced among the macaroni, bringing a subtle fresh and sweet taste to the dish. The texture was perfect, as the chewiness of the bread crumbs added a nice contrast to the smoothness of the sauce. I followed the mac and cheese with a forkful of Seneca salt-seared asparagus which I found slightly less appetizing — while the vegetables were mostly cooked well, there were a few stray burnt asparagus pieces and the dish was a little too oily. Finished with the asparagus, I made my way over to the potatoes. The mashed sweet potatoes were made delicious with an underlying bite of cinnamon, adding a subtle layer of complexity to the natural sweetness of the potatoes, and a butter-like texture.
Next, I excitedly tried the taco I crafted from the bar, which boasted a variety of options of meat such as pulled pork, vegan “chicken” or shredded chicken as well as a lot of topping options such as onion relish, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo salsa and black beans. The onion relish added an interesting pickled sour taste to the taco, helping to balance the heavy taste of sour cream and cheese. The pico de gallo salsa also added an additional hue of flavor due to the small bits of pineapple, which led to tiny bursts of sweet juice with every bite. To end my meal, I took a bite of the dessert. The doughnut holes were crispy on the outside yet soft on the inside. The use of a maple syrup drizzle helped amplify the sweetness of the subtle apple flavor of the dough, and the use of fresh strawberries was an excellent touch in terms of presentation and in taste. The tartness of the berry helped offset the heaviness of the dough, giving the dish a lighter feel. Overall, the students of NS 4880 did a great job in decorating the venue to really emulate the feel of a night out in Ithaca, and the menu items were creative. The mashed potatoes and doughnut holes were definitely the best dishes from the night, while the rest of the food, disappointingly, tasted just like normal dining hall food.