Cornell placed second on The Princeton Review’s Best Campus Food list released in August this year as part of the book “Best 389 Colleges: 2024 Edition,” the newest edition to the series of volumes spanning over 30 years and over one million student surveys.
This is the highest spot the University has ever reached on the list, though in 2022, Cornell was also ranked high, placing fourth. This year, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst achieved the top slot. David Soto, senior director of content development at The Princeton Review, told The Sun that Cornell has remained on the dining hall list since the book’s first edition with the list in 1992.
To compile the rankings, The Princeton Review sent surveys to 389 universities nationwide with the question “how do you rate the food on campus” on a scale of one to five — analysis of the results produced the final list, according to Soto. The Princeton Review never directly examines specific campus menus as a factor for determining rankings, and the surveys are sent every third academic year to avoid survey fatigue.
Seeing as student feedback is at the core of the ranking system, Cornell aims to incorporate student response into menu design to remain connected to campus and match to student requests, according to Ambarish Lulay, executive chef of Cornell Dining.
The Cornell Dining team, alongside other key players like the dietitians, nutritionists, student-led sustainability coordinators and chefs, goes through a rigorous menu review process to provide diverse culinary options for students, Lulay said.
“[The sustainability coordinator] give us a report, for example, at Alice Cook House at the end of [a dining] night where it seemed like mac and cheese was a huge hit and the garlic green beans were too stringy,” Lulay said. “Students provide very specific feedback, and we read through that, and we do the best to apply that to what’s happening.”
According to Lulay, Okenshields’s menu tends to remain a little bit more static while Morrison menus can be a bit more dynamic. Meanwhile, North Star is more geared towards comfort food since it is directed toward the first-year students living on North Campus.
Specialty dining options, such as the newly launched street food series, also make the dining experience at Cornell unique. The recent Pav Bhaji and Keema Pav Indian street food dinner at Morrison highlighted favorite dishes of cultural significance to many of the chefs of Indian descent, according to Lulay. He emphasized the importance of highlighting a variety of different heritages within the menus, noting that the series’ regional approach to dining also exposed many of the chefs to new ingredients and cooking methods.
Lulay added that including vegetarian options was at the crux of menu design.
“Vegetarian food can be super tasty. Without anyone noticing, half the food being offered that night was strictly vegetarian and vegan, and that was intentional,” Lulay said.
Diversity within the menu is supported by many locally sourced ingredients — such as squash, pumpkin and root vegetables during the fall. For harvest dinners, special meals in autumn featuring regional farmers, the dining team reaches out to vendors in Ithaca and the greater New York area to get a list of fresh, available ingredients that the chefs then design meals around, according to Lulay.
The effort the Cornell Dining team has poured into crafting menus has not gone unnoticed by students. Sophia Marangoudakis ’27 voiced her enjoyment for Cornell Dining as a whole.
“I’m really lucky to go to a school that has great food, because what you eat affects your brain and that affects how you study and live,” Marangoudakis said. “I love all the [culinary] options that Cornell has.”
Eva Zhuang ’26 said she enjoyed the variety of options available at West Campus dining halls and expressed that menu diversity should be improved among other campus eateries.
“I actually prefer to eat at West, even though I live on North, because there’s more diversity there,” Zhuang said. “Many of my friends also say there should be more variety in the Central dining halls like Okenshields.”
Paul Muscente, director of Cornell Dining, noted that Cornell Dining is an independent entity, rather than relying on an external vendor, allowing for freedom in menu design. According to Inside Higher Ed, approximately half of college campuses in the nation have self-operating dining services.
“Being self-operated gives our team the opportunity for our team to put their own spin on the program. It allows us to provide more than just good food and service,” Muscente said. “Our team is able to build those partnerships across campus which also increases the value and experience.”
The menu review process for the spring semester is already in the works, as Cornell Dining hopes to continue elevating students’ experience across campus, according to Lulay.
Looking to the future, Muscente said that this year’s ranking on The Princeton Review’s list gives the team lots of encouragement to strive for the first-place spot.
“It’s always a goal. But we’ve never been number two and it’s a testament to our entire team,” Muscente said. “It really is a motivator to know that [the employees are] doing good work and their day-to-day work is being acknowledged.”
Catherine Zhu is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].