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Food for thought

In a Yale dining hall, students are getting an education in eating that helps themselves, and local growers

NEW HAVEN -- To sit with this particular group of Yale University students over dinner, you'd think all they ever talk about is food.

"Remember that flank steak with the spicy green sauce?" asks senior Andrew Hamilton. "What was that sauce?"

"Cilantro," says Greg Hamm. "Mmmm," Una Au chimes in. But it's Colman Lynch who does them all one better when he says, "It was chimichurri."

Not bad for someone who's studying economics, not culinary arts. Lynch, also a senior, grins and shrugs: "That's what this dining hall has done to me."

This dining hall is at Berkeley, one of the university's 12 residential colleges -- Yale's version of dorms -- and the one at the center of what is being called a "delicious revolution." Under the Yale Sustainable Food Project, spearheaded by California chef Alice Waters when her daughter entered Yale, cooks are making everything from scratch, from ingredients grown as close to campus as can be managed. Such an approach has been undertaken by much smaller institutions, but this is a first for a university such as Yale, which feeds 8,900 students a day -- 900 of them at Berkeley.

Barely into its second year, the program is already so popular that Yale's other dining halls are now featuring some dishes prepared the Berkeley way, along with organic yogurt, local honey, and free-trade coffee and bananas. Eventually the project's managers hope the program can expand campus-wide to become the rule of Yale dining, not the exception.

The goals are lofty: Support the Connecticut farming industry, encourage organic methods, and teach students and dining hall cooks what it means to grow locally and cook and eat seasonally. "This is about getting good-tasting food in and at the same time being aware of what that means for the community around Yale," said Melina Shannon-DiPietro, the project's associate director. "There are so many movements where you have to suffer to do the right thing, but this isn't one of them."

The project also features a new organic garden, which is far too small to supply any of the dining halls but is plenty big enough to teach student volunteers firsthand lessons about sustainable agriculture. But the biggest change is found on the plastic trays being carried around Berkeley, where the meals are anything but average. This fall, they have included such dishes as roasted tomato and corn soup, lamb and feta patties with tzatziki, eggplant "caviar," and thin-crust pizza topped with peaches, prosciutto, and goat cheese.

A sincere form of flattery
While the project is a work in progress, and there have been some growing pains, students seem largely delighted by the changes. In surveys to measure student satisfaction, Berkeley's approval ratings went from 67 percent to 80 percent between spring 2002 (before the program began) and spring 2003. Last fall, the number hit 82 percent, compared to 69 percent campus-wide.

The most dramatic measure of success, though, might be the lengths to which students from Yale's other colleges have gone to share the Berkeley bounty. All but four of the dining halls limit entrance by students who don't live there, but the issue has always been more critical at Berkeley because of its central location and reputation for better food, even before the project started. At Berkeley, 50 students from other colleges are allowed in at lunch and dinner -- 30 accompanied by a host who lives in Berkeley and 20 on their own. But when word of the program spread last fall, many more than that seemed to want a taste of what they were missing, and at dinnertime people started lining up at 4:30 p.m., a half-hour before the dining hall opens.

Some went so far as to put little counterfeit Berkeley stickers on their ID cards. Diana Dosik, a junior who lives in Pierson College, was among them. Pierson was closed for renovation, so its residents were living in temporary housing, without a dining hall of their own. She was trying to eat at Berkeley so often that for her birthday, a friend presented her with one of the stickers as a much appreciated gift. "The food is so much better at Berkeley," said Dosik, even now that Pierson's renovation is complete and its dining has improved. "They need to bring the program to other dining halls and not be so exclusive."

The issue caught the attention of the Rumpus, Yale's raucous student tabloid, which procured a set of the fake stickers and sent over a staffer who lives in Berkeley, along with seven who don't -- and who tried to crash the party. The non-residents didn't get far. According to a Rumpus story in November by Mike Dunham, Yale employee Annette Tracey, who swipes cards at the entrance, stopped the group cold after checking a list and looking more closely at the stickers. The Rumpus ran a large photo of Tracey and two of the students under the headline "Dine Another Day."

Dunham's story didn't pull any punches. "The powers that be decided last fall that the biggest improvement in dining hall quality in years . . . would be first attempted not in those residential colleges most deprived, but rather in the residential college that is perhaps the most privileged on campus: Berkeley," Dunham wrote. "Yes, this is the Berkeley that was the first residential college to be renovated, the Berkeley conveniently located right in the middle of campus, the Berkeley that ALREADY had the best college dining hall in the country."

A local hip-hop group, The Sky Beneath, also got into the act with its song "BK2Night" (BK is the campus abbreviation for Berkeley). Written by Pierson residents Peter Furia and Matthew Fitzgerald, the song's hook has Furia (a.k.a. "Furyus") singing, "Ya meal's on a plan, but Annette ain't paid to be ya friend/ So what you found a hall that you like/ Fool, you can't get into Berkeley tonight." Go to www.boston.com/ae/
music to hear a clip of "BK2Night" by The Sky Beneath. The MP3 flew around campus. "I would guess probably half the school heard the song at one point," Furia said.

Even English professor John Rogers, who as Berkeley's master was responsible for taking up Waters's proposition, offered to send a reporter a copy of the song -- if he could just find it on his hard drive.

Furia is quick to point out that he supports the progressive goals of the Sustainable Food Project, and in turn the project's organizers are delighted that the program has touched a chord with students. Cathy Jones, its executive chef, wishes the program could serve all of Yale's students but wants to make sure it doesn't grow too quickly. To that end, Tracey is a crucial part of the equation. "The chefs don't want to run out of food, and Annette is up there with some guy saying, `But this is my girlfriend. I met her last week,' " Jones said. "She's got a really tough job."

Tracey seems to relish the notoriety. On a recent Thursday night, in between ID checks, she was quick to hand a reporter a copy of the Rumpus story and to scribble her name across the page. "I've been signing these since last year," she said with a smile.

Now they're cooking

Cathy Jones, who had worked with Waters in California, came to the project last spring, when the kitchen's cooks were on the verge of a walkout because of all the extra work. "They were so deep in the weeds, and they couldn't see it as really important. They just saw their days had gotten much longer," she said. "I told them they were rock stars, a lot cooler than famous New York chefs." She also got them more directly involved in the menu planning, bringing in stacks of Gourmet magazines -- where she also once worked -- to help them think about seasonality and to brainstorm dishes. When the program expanded, it was the Berkeley cooks who taught their counterparts in the other dining halls how to make the project's dishes.

"It's a totally different way of thinking and cooking institutionally," said Aldo Gargamelli, the kitchen's second cook, as he layered bright tomato slices over caramelized onions in tart shells, then sprinkled chopped basil and goat cheese on top. "It was a big change, going from processed vegetables to ones right out of the ground, basically. It's night and day when it comes to taste. And I know the kids really appreciate it."

They also appreciate having more interaction with staff members who prepare sandwiches right in front of them. "I have little conversations with Chris all the time now," said Au, referring to one of the workers, Christine Quinn.

"I love Chris," Hamm says. "She'll say, `I made this pizza, what do you think?' They're so proud of their work."

Of course, not everyone waxes ecstatic about every aspect of the program. Colman Lynch, the economics student who remembered the chimichurri sauce on the flank steak, says he was "less than thrilled" about the changes last year. "I was a big fan of the grill (burgers, hot dogs, chicken breasts, etc.) that they had to cut out to make way for the organic thing," he wrote in an e-mail. "It's not so bad now, but it's definitely hit or miss."

The strict adherence to local seasonality has also been an adjustment. "We come back to school, we have tomatoes all the time, and they're delicious, probably the best tomatoes I've had in my life, but come winter we'll never see a tomato," said Au.

Sophomore Cutter Rolles, while praising the project in general, calls the fair-trade coffee "awful" and says last winter's menu was frustratingly heavy on dark greens, starches, and leeks. "Really, what can grow in the Northeast in the middle of winter?" he asked. "It's fairly limited."

"We were like, `Just import the stuff,' " Au said.

While Jones and company work on improving the winter menu, planning such dishes as wasabi mashed potatoes and butter-braised root vegetables, project leaders like Shannon-DiPietro love the chance to talk to students about just why those tomatoes have so much flavor. (Hint: It has to do with the difference between those grown for immediate consumption and those grown to be sturdy enough for shipping.) "We want to make students think about what food really tastes like and what food tastes good, but also the whole story of how the food came to be prepared for them," she said.

Even the students who were immediate fans of the changes say they have noticed an improvement since Jones took over, so they're willing to wait and see what's in store for this winter, especially given how responsive they say the chefs have been to student concerns. "I have really high hopes," said Hamilton.

Overall, the Berkeley residents say they're eating off campus much less often than they used to, and they say coming to the dining hall feels like going to a restaurant, albeit one filled with hundreds of their friends and classmates.

With that in mind, they are also quick to acknowledge how lucky they feel, especially since the college assignment process at Yale is random for everyone except "legacies," those with a parent who lived in a particular dorm. "The truth is," said Au, "we're really spoiled."

Supply and demand
As administrators keep surveying students, they are also considering a possible increase in board rates to offset some of the the project's extra costs. Berkeley's food budget increased from $527,000 a year to $760,000, out of a campus-wide budget of $3 million. And that's not counting another $460,000 for education, salaries, training, and the garden site improvement -- all of it covered by private donations. If the program were to expand to all 12 residential colleges, administrators estimate, Yale's overall food service budget would probably double. And there may not be enough supply to meet the demand.

"We may have to redefine `local,' " said Don McQuarrie, executive director of Yale's dining services.

"This has been a big part of the debate," added Shannon-DiPietro. "Can Connecticut feed itself?"

Nonetheless, other colleges and universities are watching the Yale experiment closely. A conference sponsored by Yale last November drew about 200 people, including representatives from Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, and Princeton. At Brown, a new food line called Roots and Shoots is offering healthier dishes, such as vegan tofu pups and brown rice, along with meals that feature local produce.

Meanwhile, although the crush at Berkeley seems to have eased up as other dining halls are offering a taste of the program, students from other residential colleges continue to try to sneak in for the full experience. "The other day, I have to admit, I was trying to take two friends here, and I could only host one," said Rolles. "So I had the other person pretend to return a tray that had been left outside, to pretend that she had already eaten."

The other students at the table raised their eyebrows and looked at one another. "That's actually a really good idea," Hamilton said.

"Slick," said Au.

Joe Yonan can be reached at yonan@globe.com.  

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