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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Brain Food

From within the Fridge Dept.: A snapshot of the dining options at Troy’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as I encountered it about four and a half years ago. How nice it would be if other large universities could care a little more about the quality of the grub they provide!


WITH THE RECENT OPENING of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), the Troy campus has received well-deserved national attention. I recently toured the facility to sample a few of the ongoing artistic offerings, but as the day went on my thoughts turned to a more burning question: What’s for lunch?

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I discovered Thunder Mountain Curry at RPI’s MacNeil Room, in the Rensselaer Union at 15th Street and Sage Avenue, where Mike Gordon serves a changing menu of delicacies from India and beyond. He’s there during the weekdays for lunch and downstairs in the union’s Rathskeller at night. Gordon is known for his stand at the Troy Farmer’s Market on Saturdays; his RPI incursion began with a cart on the street, which led the school’s chef, Jackie Baldwin, to invite him inside.

The best dining bargain in the area is Thunder Mountain Curry’s $7 sampler plate. This allows you to taste Gordon’s signature curry of the day, rice (Basmati or sticky) and vegetables, topped with a generous handful of freshly-fried pakoras, condiments (chopped garlic and toasted shallots, for instance), sauces and a pickle.

“The students are in charge of making decisions [about food],” says Baldwin, “and they had a choice between Thunder Mountain Curry and a sushi vendor. Thunder Mountain won unanimously.”

Gordon has been in the student union since January, sharing space with Maxx deli (gourmet hot sandwiches, as well as a traditional deli selection); Sandella’s, offering wraps, pizza and panini; SaladFX, for more verdant grazing; and the Southwestern-inspired cuisine of Ultimate Baja. When I visited, Gordon’s sampler included chicken in red curry sauce, Sri Lankan five-flavor beets, sesame green bean stir-fry, palak paneer and pakoras. Chicken biryani with golden raisins and apricots was also available.

“My wife introduced me to this cuisine,” says Gordon. “I’m classically trained; I went through culinary school, but my wife made me a curry one night that changed my life. She’s a teacher who spent seven years working in Pakistan. That curry she made really jazzed me, and I started learning those recipes. And I try to make it an educational experience for my customers. Today I brought together all the flavor elements—hot, sweet, salty, sour—with a menu that encourages people to play around with the idea of food. Lately I’ve been adding more Thai dishes, putting different countries together.”

Gordon’s participation reflects a developing philosophy at the campus for growing beyond the typical dining-hall fare of high-fat fast food. The college’s food service is provided by a division of Sodexo, one of the largest international food and facilities management services. Although the company has come under fire for its ties to private prisons and the U.S. Department of Defense, the local face of the company (RPI’s food service falls under the aegis of Sodexo USA’s Rensselaer Hospitality Services) reflects Baldwin’s commendable mission not only to accommodate a wide range of tastes but also to work with local farmers, purveyors and chefs to assure quality in variety.

Downstairs at the Rensselaer Union you can get meals all day and into the night from the Rathskeller vendors, including Grill 155 (burgers and other grilled items), the Sub Connection, Cyberwraps, Fire and Spice (pizza and wings) and, in the evenings, Thunder Mountain Curry.

If you’re looking for organic fare or simply something healthier than fried stuff, look in the Balance section of the newly renovated Fathers Marketplace. The shop is just down the hall and stays open late on weekdays. Also for sale are prepared foods for reheating, pasta salads, hero sandwiches (chicken and meatball parm are popular), coffee and smoothies. The market won a write up a few months ago in the magazine C/Stores on Campus.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
More recognition comes later this month at a Las Vegas conference where Food Management magazine will honor Baldwin and Sodexo Campus Services district manager John Fusco for a special campus dietary program called MyZone. Launched a year ago, MyZone provides complete meals that accommodate food allergies and dietary needs.

“Our biggest item is the line of gluten-free meals we provide,” says Baldwin, displaying a heat-and-serve package. We have our own bakery, and can make these wheat-free as well.”

MyZone is located at one end of the Commons Dining Hall, which is nestled among the first-year residence buildings. Fresh meals can be prepared in the MyZone kitchen, and frozen items are always available. “We also have meals that are dairy free, and we can cook kosher and halal. We tailor the program to individual students. Recently we had a student with a broken jaw, and we were able to purée all his meals. Last year, we had 46 halal students. It changes each semester.”

Other food types at the Commons—where you dine under the arresting sight of an experimental glider built by RPI students many years ago—include Asian fare (at the Asian Pacifica station), pasta to order, a deli, an ever-changing Theme Cuisine station, and many other salad and sandwich options.

A campus this size—there are 7,000 students and 2,500 of them have a meal plan—requires many dining venues. Jazzman’s Café (at Darrin Hall), one of Sodexo’s upscale brands and a mainstay at classy airports, sells subs, wraps, panini, cappuccino, espresso and freshly baked cookies; Sage Labs’ Beanery Café has gourmet sandwiches and convenience store items. Then there’s Stacks Deli at the Library Café, the grab-and-go Lalley Galley at the School of Management, and the stand-alone coffeehouse Java++ at 15th and Congress.

An addition to the Russell Sage Dining Hall sports 320 seats and feeds more than 1,200 students each day. The Market is a self-service salad bar; burgers and Philly cheese sandwiches are among grilled items produced by Flame; Tradition has a changing menu of self-serve items; and Firenze Oven cranks out some 140 pizzas a day in addition to pasta dishes.

Then there’s Passports, which features international exhibition cooking. This means you get to watch campus food- service celebrity Tofu Tim at work. He was flamboyantly preparing omelets when I stopped by to watch, engaged in high- spirited conversation with the students. “I listen to the kids,” he told me later, trying to explain his popularity, “and I make what they like.”

But there’s clear evidence of his own preferences in his craft. His vegetarian items were popular enough to earn him his sobriquet, a salute to the protean protein he favors. “I also run a culinary club every other Friday,” he says, “where students and I cook together. Our most recent one featured Moroccan beef skewers with couscous and southwest chili with Indian spices. And there’s no holding back on the spices.”

Terra Café, built on the concept of total cooperation between students and staff, is run every Wednesday at Sage Dining Hall. “We wanted to create a community around the concept of food made from local and organic ingredients,” says Elly Braco, who worked with Baldwin to develop the café. A recent menu of beef (or tofu) and broccoli stir-fry used Northeast Family Farms beef and Wertman Farms broccoli, organic rice, organic greens, DiviniTea tea and Goold Farms cider.

Adam Galbraith, who was helping put out the meal, said, “We look at what’s at the farmer’s market and suggest a menu. We build it around a protein, and work with the chefs to refine it. Our most popular items, by far, are chicken and eggplant parmigiana. When that’s announced, there’s always a long line out the door, and we’ll sell about 120 to 140 of them.”

Would this concept work more days a week than one? “We’ve talked about it,” says Braco, “but I worry that it might take away from the sense of community if we did it more often.” So each Wednesday, at least, the dining area is filled with students and professors eager to support the concept of local, sustainable food resources.

All this doesn’t even take into account the on-site catering provided by Baldwin’s staff. It’s no wonder you’re likely to catch sight of people in chef’s jackets as you walk the grounds: There are more than 200 people employed at RPI for food service alone. This month they’re especially busy as the EMPAC festivities continue. Be sure to get over to RPI to see the new facility, and then take a few minutes to get a bite to eat.

Metroland Magazine, 6 October 2008

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