Pass the Gnocchi, Please

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78 / September / October 2006
November 15th, 2006

Word spread quickly about the food. Well before the doors to the Ratty opened for dinner at 4:00, a line had begun forming on the steps outside. The word was that dining services was hosting a visiting chef—Casey Riley, from the upscale Castle Hill Inn and Resort in Newport, Rhode Island. Like tourists grateful to snag a mid-afternoon dinner reservation at a Michelin-starred restaurant, students queued up well in advance to taste his creations, which Brown’s chefs had just finished duplicating under chef Riley’s supervision. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the dining hall had been transformed for the evening. The massive round oak tables were all dressed up with crisp white linens and baskets of brightly colored Gerber daisies. A jazz combo could be heard tuning up in the rear. Tired-looking staff raced around, filling portable fountains with mango-flavored iced tea, arranging hand-made chocolate truffles and bowls of freshly whipped cream on dessert tables, and laying out serving utensils by the entreés. They’d just finished a marathon day of prep work and another day cooking—“major overtime,” as one chef put it—and were down to the wire. If past experience held—the food fête has become an annual event—they’d be feeding nearly 3,000 hungry students in the next three-and-a-half hours.

While the setting looked like a wedding reception, the guests were decidedly casual. When the doors opened, students sauntered in wearing flip-flops, T-shirts, and low-cut jeans. They slung backpacks onto chairs and meandered around the room, checking out the appetizers (littlenecks and sausage, rich clam chowder, tomato pesto soup), the salads (organic baby greens with tomato and orange slices), the breads (garlicky focaccia, tiny chive biscuits, sourdough rolls), the desserts (strawberry shortcake, bourbon pecan pie, chocolate soufflé cake, and Castle Hill’s trademark chocolate-chip cookies). Everything was made by Brown chefs, who stood by glowing, hoping for rave reviews from this unusual rabble of food critics.

By the time the first students made their way to the tables with trays bearing their entrées (halibut on wilted greens, salmon with shrimp and spring vegetable étouffée, pork loin with a pistachio crust, brandy-glazed chicken, lentils with roasted vegetables), the place was filling up. Students walked briskly back and forth to the iced-tea fountains, refilling tiny plastic cups and calling one another to come try the clams, the chowder, the roasted asparagus with truffle oil. College food never tasted so good.

One of the first to eat was rugby player Kalie Gold ’08, who’d just returned from a match in Uganda. She picked a spot at an empty table near the buffet line, judiciously tested an asparagus spear, and nodded her approval. “Normally,” she shrugged, “you have to be creative to make the Ratty work.” On a typical night, she said, she’d select pasta and a little Alfredo sauce from the Italian Trattoria line, then onions and tomatoes from another line, and season her creation with a squeeze of lemon. Biting into the pork, however, she grinned. “This is just as impressive as last year’s dinner,” she proclaimed.

Forty feet away a rowdy group had piled their plates high. They ate voraciously, joking loudly as one after another got up for refills. Asked if they were having appetizers first and then heading over to the entrée lines, they shook their heads and explained that this was just a snack, they were off to a dinner afterwards. Still they dug in to their clams and sausage enthusiastically. “Awesome,” one called out, and the others roared.

As the crowd thickened, dozens of students could be overheard on cell phones, urging friends to come fast. Asked how the food was, they gave full-mouthed grins and unanimous thumbs-ups. “Amazing,” proclaimed Justin Kerestes ’08. “Delicious,” added Heddy Anderson ’08. Sheila Dugan ’07 judged the meal “even better than last year.” -

Of the 2,900 students who ate in the dining halls that night—up from the usual dinner crowd of 1,400 to 1,500—a lucky fifty won a raffle for a bonus treat: the chance to eat with chef Riley in a private room off the Ratty, where he staged a Food Network–style cooking demonstration. At the front of the room he stood in impeccable chef’s whites and toque, behind a long table laden with the meal’s ingredients—from clams to olive oil—and a gas hot plate. “A lot of people don’t want to clean the kitchen, so they cook on low heat,” Riley warned, turning up the gas under a sauté pan, “but you don’t get any flavor that way.” A few minutes later, when he placed a piece of halibut in the pan, it sizzled loudly. “That’s what’s going to create the fond,” he said, “which is what creates flavor.”

Riley told them he’d never worked in a facility the size of the Ratty. He’d cooked at plenty of high-end restaurants, but there he was preparing dishes à la minute—made to order, at the last minute. “It’s amazing,” he said, praising both Brown’s cooks and the quality of the ingredients they’d used. His restaurant is known for its fresh, local seafood and produce, and he lauded the University for supporting local farmers [see “The New Organic,” July/August, 2005, or go to]. “I want to encourage you as young people to visit farmers’ markets,” he said. “Good chefs buy good food.”

Riley’s talk was part technique, part food history. A handful of students jotted notes on the recipe printouts he’d provided. As he prepared a traditional local dish of Portuguese littlenecks and chorizo sausage, he explained that all New England hard-shelled clams are technically quahogs, and that the terms cherrystone, littleneck, and quahog simply describe their size, from small to large. He pointed out that grocery stores carry two styles of chorizo: Portuguese, which is common in Rhode Island, and the spicier Mexican variety. Both, he said, derive from recipes brought by the Spanish when they invaded the Americas. The smell of garlic filled the room.

“How do you come up with your recipes?” one student asked. The chef said he was inspired by the places he’s lived, that he’d developed his love of chiles while living in New Mexico, for example, and that he’s now learning from his sous chef, who, like many Rhode Islanders, has roots in Portugal. “Portuguese food is now a part of my life,” Riley said with a wide grin, adding that the students were lucky to be living amid this particular culture and cuisine.

The four-year-old annual fête at the Ratty may be the showiest change in student dining these days, but it’s one of dozens of innovations dining services staff have concocted in recent years to keep students eating on campus, rather than in Thayer Street eateries. “If you stagnate, students tend to wander,” says executive chef John O’Shea, who has been with the University since 1976.

In his early days, O’Shea recalls, meals were served at fixed hours, and menus adhered to a pretty simple formula: “You had your meat or chicken, fish, your starches, two vegs,” he says, deadpan. “No soup with dinner; just lunch.”

Everything was prepared from scratch—as it is now—in vast stainless steel cauldrons, and a service elevator brought the food up to four identical steam-table food lines in the center of the dining hall. Variety crept in during the 1970s, as the University tried to keep pace with the rise of salad bars and the increased popularity of granola, yogurt, bagels, and soft ice cream. Students may have complained, but there were few alternatives. All freshmen were required to buy meal contracts, and limited access to dormitory kitchens and a dearth of nearby inexpensive restaurants kept most upperclassmen eating in the dining halls until they moved into off-campus apartments senior year.

That’s all changed. First-year students still must purchase meal contracts, but after that dining services has to compete for market share. In the 1970s students drank endless cups of coffee and ate slabs of cheesecake smothered in gloopy cherry sauce at Ronnie’s Rascal House on Thayer Street. Now on Thayer Street students can choose among falafel, pad Thai, sushi, chow fun, souvlaki, burritos, and linguini, all in addition to such staples as hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, and ice cream.

What’s more, today’s students arrive on College Hill as more sophisticated eaters than those from earlier, canned-goods generations. They are experienced microwavers and know their way around a take-out menu. For the most part, they grew up in smaller families and ate out more than previous generations. They grew up with the Food Network and know the difference between gelato and sorbet. “Many of these kids come here with extraordinary dining experiences,” says Vice President of Campus Life and Student Services David Greene, who this summer left Brown for the University of Chicago. “They didn’t grow up on powdered milk.” He sighs and shakes his head enviously. “God, I hated that stuff.”

Parents care more, too. Housing and dining, Greene says, are two areas in which parental expectations are rapidly increasing. “Some of it has to do with the rising cost of a Brown education, and some of it has to do with higher standards,” he says. “Parents want healthy food for their children. At Parents’ Weekend, I always get questions about the quality of the food and the amount of organic produce. I can guarantee that these parents think about what their kids eat more than mine did.”

Today’s students are also far less rigid about meal times. They’re used to eating when they’re hungry, not just between 12 and 1 or 5 and 7 p.m. Thayer Street restaurants are open all day and late into the night, and pizza parlors are no longer the only places that deliver. In response, dining halls have expanded their hours of operation, serving continuously from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Students can use meal credits interchangeably or spend their “FlexPlus Points” at the snack carts in the libraries or until 2 a.m. at Josiah’s or the Gate. These days, food is food. It doesn’t matter when or where you eat it.

Verney-Wooley, or V-Dub, as the smaller dining hall on Pembroke campus is known, got a makeover four years ago [“Chez V-Dub,” November/December, 2002, or go to www], and the four food lines in the Ratty were given distinctive identities and menus. The Trattoria line features pasta and other Italian dishes; Roots & Shoots highlights seasonal local produce and caters to vegans and vegetarians; the Bistro serves breakfast all day and more sophisticated fare at night; and you can always grab a burger and fries at the Grill. Observant Muslim and Jewish students can purchase Halal and Kosher meal plans.

For students on the run, the dining halls now offer biode-gradable take-away containers. Beyond that, students can pick up a coffee and a muffin at the Blue Room or a bagel at Little Joe’s in Vartan Gregorian Quad. The Blue Room, Ivy Room, and Gate all serve lunch, and the latter features local produce in its community- harvest pizzas. Late-night eaters can go there or pick up quesadillas and stir-fries at Josiah’s.

Students also have the option of participating in the harvesting, distribution, and promotion of local food. In the fall, dining services takes vanloads of students to local farms to pick apples and other produce. A Wednesday farmers market in Wriston Quad sells flowers, fruits, vegetables, honey, salsas, and jam, as well as buttery tarts and cookies made by dining services bakers. The chefs also have begun offering occasional cooking classes for students, and the Ratty hosts a popular Iron Chef competition, in which students compete to outcook one another.

For all these changes, though, students still complain about dining hall food. The suggestion boxes at the Ratty are regularly filled with pleas for more variety, more vegetarian, more organic, and more healthy options.

O’Shea says he cooked up the visiting chef program to give students “a break from mac and cheese” and to give his staff a chance to stretch their culinary wings, working with pricier ingredients than usual and learning new techniques from their colleagues in the higher-end restaurant business. Each winter, O’Shea and several staff members make a road trip to scout out a local restaurant’s menu and to invite the chef to oversee a meal drawn from the restaurant’s fare. The visitors provide the recipes, and Brown chefs do the math, figuring out how to increase the proportions for a single serving of, say, pan-roasted halibut, to 1,000 or more. Then the visitor comes up and taste-tests the results and together they fine-tune the recipes.

Dishes from past visiting chefs have found their way into regular rotation at both the Ratty and Verney-Wooley. Gnocchi from the chic Italian restaurant Mediterraneo, up on Providence’s Federal Hill, were an overwhelming hit when its chef came to campus in 2005; they’re now in regular rotation on the menu. So are the chicken tikka and chana masala (curried chickpeas) from Thayer’s Street’s popular Indian restaurant Kebab and Curry, whose chef visited the year before.

Although all this gustatory reform may comfort parents and incoming students, some eating habits die hard. At the end of chef Riley’s cooking demonstration last spring, two women lingered, discussing what they liked best and comparing recipes animatedly. They were roommates, they said. Asked if they planned to go home and try any of the dishes they’d eaten tonight, the two dissolved into sheepish giggles.

“First we have to buy a frying pan,” one of them admitted.

For all the high-minded talk about variety and healthy food options, the fact remains, for example, that of the sixteen breakfast cereals available in the dining halls, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Golden Grahams remain the most popular. When chicken tenders are on the menu, 1,600 or 1,800 students regularly tear through 2,400 portions, says O’Shea, observing that the other top draws are fried chicken, popcorn chicken, grilled chicken, and roast turkey dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy. Maybe comfort food is just more forgiving of mass production.

Then again, maybe students away from home really want something that tastes like home.

And although the hot trend in university food services these days is toward what’s called “distributed dining,” multiple small eateries with a more intimate feel, the Ratty is still the place to be at mealtimes. Built in the 1950s, Brown’s main campus refectory has an industrial-size basement kitchen and central service elevators hauling food up to a core of four service stations. Once state-of-the-art, the Ratty is archaic by today’s standards. The dining hall seats 974, and, except in two alcoves (the caves, students call them) with lower ceilings, the din from student conversations can be deafening. It’s an agorophobe’s nightmare.

Still, students love the space as much as they love to kvetch about the food. Anticipating that replacing the Ratty might be a goal in the current Boldly Brown capital campaign, the campus life office surveyed students last year to gauge their preferences. What administrators found was that, for all its faults, the Ratty serves as a commons for much of the campus. And students really, really like it.

“There’s a tremendous yearning among students for community, in a social environment, over food,” David Greene says. “I was surprised. I was thrilled.”

So instead of gutting the space or building a new dining hall, Brown renovated the existing space this summer, adding a long-needed elevator and ramps to make it truly handicap-accessible, and replacing the ceilings to upgrade lighting as well as fire and security systems. The interior is getting a facelift, but it will remain the cavernous space it always was, a place to see and be seen—a place to eat.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.

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September / October 2006