Friday, October 22, 2010

Changing the perception of the 'college cafeteria'

Contributed by Marsha Lynch, The Dining Room at Gardiner Point Residence Hall, Sullivan University

Since the moment in the 1978 film "Animal House" when John Belushi's character yelled, "Food fight!" the concept of the college cafeteria has been cemented in the American psyche. Acres of dingy linoleum featuring ranks of communal trestle-tables with bench seating. Bland, poorly cooked food glopped onto compartmented plastic trays by grouchy matrons in hairnets and polyester. Mystery meat; cold, gray vegetables; lumpy mashed potatoes topped with lumpier gravy; and lots of green Jell-O.

Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., has broken the stereotype with its new $7 million facility, The Dining Room at Gardiner Point Residence Hall. Sullivan is home to the National Center for Hospitality Studies (NCHS), one of the leading culinary arts and hospitality management schools in the country. The Gardiner Point Residence Hall, a converted fully flagged and operating hotel situated near Sullivan's main campus, its College of Pharmacy and the Sullivan College of Technology and Design campus, opened in the summer of 2010.

"I saw this 138,000-square-foot hotel resort property overlooking a lake and adjacent to corporate campus of the World Headquarters of Yum! Brands as a wonderful resident hall opportunity," says Dr. A.R. Sullivan, Sullivan chancellor.

With living space for over 400 freshmen students, Gardiner Point is a state-of-the-art university residential facility that includes a large fitness center, onsite convenience store, gaming rooms, a heated swimming pool, a movie theater, a mezzanine level filled with computer study kiosks--and then there's The Dining Room.

Table with a view in The Dining Room

"We envisioned The Dining Room as a quality restaurant featuring fresh-made food of the highest quality in an 'all-you-can-eat' environment matching the quality of our world-class culinary program. I think we surpassed that quest," Sullivan adds.

Entering The Dining Room from the rear of the marble-floored lobby, one sees yards of granite countertops and seven glass-fronted action stations (much of the cooking is done right in front of the guests). The space has an array of seating choices: banquettes line one wall; two tops, four tops and eight tops are sprinkled across the parquet flooring; a raised area runs along a full wall of mullioned windows overlooking a brick patio filled with wrought-iron tables and chairs, adjacent to a small lake populated by waterfowl. A cozy furniture grouping on a carpeted area faces a large fireplace over which is mounted an equally large flat-screen television. Myriad liquid refreshments jostle for attention from the beverage counter. A large soup and salad bar nestles comfortably as an island amidst the tables and chairs.

There are no polyester-clad food service workers here; the cooks and chefs (a mix of students and graduates who receive wages above the industry standard) wear white chef's jackets and crisp white aprons as they move about the room efficiently, reflected in the expanses of stainless-steel fixtures. The food is served on real china with real flatware.

The pizza station features a chef tossing house-made crusts and loading them with gourmet toppings to be baked in two large ovens with built-in pizza stone floors. An induction-cooking station offers made-to-order eggs and omelets during breakfast or pasta dishes during lunch and dinner. The grill station provides college-student favorites such as burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, grilled cheese sandwiches, potato and sweet-potato fries, fried green beans, fried pickles and chicken wings with house-made hot sauce--not to mention Belgian blueberry waffles and chocolate chip pancakes during morning service.

Pizzas with house-made crusts on display in The Dining Room

There's a steam table section that rotates high-end food offerings three times a day; a deli station with made-to-order sandwiches and a dual panini press; a carving station where a chef carves to-order prime rib, roast turkey, smoked brisket, glazed ham and more, with sauce wells for demi-glace or house-made gravy. An elaborate dessert station is stocked with baked goods and desserts from The Bakery at Sullivan--muffins, breakfast pastries, cupcakes, pies, cakes and cookies. A soft-serve ice cream machine dispenses luscious dessert toppings or cones, if you’re so inclined.

The Dining Room is the realization of the design of chef Tom Hickey, a Culinary Oympics medal winner and director of Sullivan's NCHS; and Scott Stromer, executive director of food and beverage for the Sullivan University System. In addition to The Dining Room, Stromer (formerly a chef for Hyatt Hotels, vice president and corporate executive chef of the Dial Corp., and executive director of food and beverage operations at Michigan State University) manages The Bakery, Julep's Catering, Winston's Restaurant and the Ala Carte Café at Sullivan's main campus with the assistance of multiple department managers and their staffs.

"It was always our plan for The Dining Room to set trends in university food service that others would want to follow," Stromer says. "For instance, the food and baked goods we serve are all house-made, from scratch. In addition, we constantly monitor the residents' eating habits and solicit their input for menu changes. Communicating and even collaborating to some degree with your guests is crucial; you must be focused on their needs. We also strive to be detail-oriented, evaluating and re-evaluating recipe formulations so that we're always improving our menu offerings and exceeding expectations. Our watchwords for profitable growth are 'consistency, color, variety and flavor combinations.'"

(l to r) The author, Marsha Lynch, sous chef at Gardiner Point; Scott Stromer, executive director of food and beverage for the Sullivan University System; and Tyson Long, sous chef for Sullivan University's Juleps Catering, which also has its headquarters at Gardiner Point

But it's not just about the bottom line; it's also about the students. Stromer says he is passionate about the educational component of university foodservice, mentoring and coaching his staff. "Our Sullivan students and graduates who work at The Dining Room are molding the industry," he says,"“and we are always learning something new from one another. It's exciting to watch people grow and develop their cooking and other professional skills on a daily basis."

Marsha Lynch is the sous chef at The Dining Room at Gardiner Point Residence Hall, Sullivan University, Louisville, Ky.