Co-President of the Asian Student Association Melody Eng, senior, has not always been satisfied by Dining Services’ attempts to serve food from diverse cultures.
“If Chinese food (is) authentic, then the Caf is kind of like Panda Express. It’s not 100% accurate. It’s more like they’re trying their best, but not 100% nailing in what authentic cuisine is,” she said.
Dining Services, under Bon Appetit General Manager Doug Stenfeldt, has been attempting to make progress in diversifying their offerings. Eng took part in the latest attempt, the first in a planned series of Diversity Dinners.
A collaboration between Dining Services and Student Senate’s Diversity Committee, the Diversity Dinner invited students from cultural organizations on campus to come work with dining services on preparing an authentic meal from their culture, which is added to the Hard Knox Cafe’s usual offerings. For the first installment, Eng prepared a Japanese miso soup, which was served during dinner hours on Nov. 13.
“Although (Dining Services) do their best to try to promote whatever ethnic foods they do know and have recipes for, I think it’s necessary to really step in as an ethnic individual, to really show them other foods that students are able to provide for the Caf,” Eng said. “I want it to be as authentic as possible.”
Stenfeldt said the new project grew out of Dining Services catering many events for campus cultural clubs last year, and working with the clubs on having students show the culinary staff how they wanted their food prepared.
Stenfeldt also saw an opportunity in building on the popularity of the diverse food offered during I-Fair to a year round series of dishes. This began with Chinese Club hosting a food tasting event last spring, but now Stenfeld has been working with Senate Diversity Chair Bamise Afolabi, junior, on expanding outward.
“We realized the students really like coming into the kitchen and actually working with the food themselves,” Stenfeldt said.
Afolabi reached out to cultural clubs on campus on getting involved, which is how Eng was brought in for the first Diversity Dinner.
Afolabi felt the first dinner was a success. He stated that he has heard from multiple clubs interested in participating in the future and hopes for the Caf to essentially host one Diversity Dinner every other week during Winter and Spring term.
Eng stated that she has been a mixed response to the soup, having received honest feedback such as it being too textured and having too much tofu. However, she has also heard from students who enjoyed the meal.
Eng noted that she chose to describe the miso soup as a traditional Japanese dish, instead of simply calling it a regional Asian dish as she originally intended. However, she did this with hesitation. Being Chinese herself, she was not certain she could characterize the meal as authentically Japanese.
The process behind Eng preparing the meal was initially a confusing one. She struggled with communicating with Stenfeldt on what was expected of her. She eventually went to meet with Stenfeldt directly, and he allowed her to bring ingredients home to test out in her apartment before going in to prepare the meal on the actual day.
A future change Eng hopes can be worked out with future Diversity Dinners is improving the process for selecting ingredients. While Eng can request ingredients from the Caf, it would be up to the chefs to acquire the ingredients, which would leave Eng with uncertainty on whether she was getting the correct ones.
“It was kind of hectic, confusing and a little stressful honestly, to say ‘Hey, does this ingredient work the same? It says it’s the same, I’m not totally sure it’s going to work.’ ”
However, Eng believes the confusion was simply a natural part of it being the first attempt. She still described her experience as a fun one, especially finding it interesting to work in the Knox kitchen with a very different set of utensils from what she has available in her apartment kitchen. Eng hopes more students will follow her in participating.
Afolabi stated that possible changes to the event he has discussed with Stenfeldt include adding music and having a different location in the Caf to serve the food.
In general, Stenfeldt feels that Dining Services has been making improvements in how it serves students from international backgrounds, such as having responded to complaints from students on halal diets by adding more options for them.
A discussion Afolabi has heard among international students is that the breakfast period in particular is when the cafeteria is low on options he would describe as diverse. Afolabi said he was told this was an issue being looked into.
Stenfeldt responded that it comes down to students themselves coming in with recipes and ideas to guide dining services on what kinds of food they want offered by the cafeteria.
“One entree from India with the same name [as one from] another [South Asian] country, are polar opposites. They’re different things. So we’ll put something out there from a student from Pakistan, and somebody from India will walk in and say that’s wrong,” Stenfeldt said. “So that’s why we wanted to highlight where we actually got these recipes from. The more people bring to us the more we’ll do. If they want to come in and show us, even better.”