Recipe for success: Themed meals prove a hit with students, dining staff

A student reaches for dressing at the salad bar in Carmichael Dining Hall on April 2. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily

Easter and Passover meals, Tailgate Brunch, Dim Sum Brunch, Street Food Dinner, the list goes on. Such themed gastronomical delights await hungry students in our dining halls, proving that beyond just being a necessity, campus food can provide us with comfort and joy.

Themed meals at Tufts started decades ago as “monotony breakers,” according to Patti Klos, director of dining and business services. Realizing that students may get tired of fixed menus, Tufts Dining Services sought to offer variations to change things up several times throughout the semester.

“There are all kinds of opportunities to introduce things that aren’t necessarily something you’d want to eat every day, but it’s fun to try different things,” Klos said. “It’s definitely something we do because we want to have change, excitement and interesting things for our student customers and other guests we serve.”

Motivations behind themed dining

Peter Soucy, unit manager for Carmichael Dining Center, cited three main reasons why Dining Services holds themed meals. Themed meals allow dining staff to expose students to diverse cuisines from different cultures, celebrate holidays and festivities and give students and staff something different to look forward to, according to Soucy.

“It’s great for my staff to cook different items outside what’s on the cycle menu. It’s a nice change of pace,” Soucy said. “We also have a diverse workforce, so they’re actually able to cook foods from their backgrounds or countries of origin.”

According to Soucy, the most popular themed meal is, unsurprisingly, Night of Favorites, featuring students’ top picks. However, the dining halls also draw crowds for a variety of other themed events, including Under the Sea and Scrape Your Plate.

Under the Sea is great because we bring attention to different species that are perhaps underutilized and are a lot of times bycatches. But just because they aren’t what the fishermen were exactly after doesn’t mean they’re bad,” Soucy said. “With Scrape Your Plate, we have students scrape off what’s left on their plates before sending it back to the kitchen. What it does, without trying to place any guilt on anyone, is bring attention to food waste and help people think about how much food they’re putting on their plate.”

Some themed meals allow Dining Services to collaborate with other groups in the Tufts and Medford/Somerville community. The annual Station House Chili Fest held in October started in order to recognize emergency responders, as there is a history of chili in station houses. October is also Fire Prevention Month, so Dining Services combined the two to meet an audience in a different way.

“We use this as a way to introduce students to the emergency responders in our community, such as TUPD [Tufts University Police Department] and TEMS [Tufts Emergency Medical Services], and then it expanded to the local fire, police departments and others,” Klos said. “Our culinary team often has an internal challenge to come up with new types of chili, some versions include ‘How hot can you make it?’ and recently ‘What other ingredients can you add?’”

Authenticity and representation

Soucy and Klos both emphasized the care and thought that goes into preparing dishes that are as authentic as possible. Dining Services researches different cuisines and also uses their “in-house staff’s knowledge as a resource,” according to Soucy.

“We don’t pretend to be experts in a particular area, so we try as much as possible to involve individuals who have experience or authority in the area [of the themed meal we’re providing],” Klos said. “We try to portray the meals as a sampling of the foods from a particular tradition or culture, so that we’re not doing it in a way that’s offensive, but rather an opportunity to introduce some dishes.”

Klos added that it is equally important that advertising, decorations and promotion for such themed meals are appropriate.

To Soucy, themed meals offer the possibility for students to have a taste of home, as well as a welcoming environment.

“For many [first-years] this is the first time in their life they’ve been away from home for an extended period of time, so we want to do meals that make them feel comfortable coming in,” Soucy said. “It can be a little daunting if you’re coming 5,000 miles from home, so we like to have these types of dinners that lend some fun to the atmosphere.”

Ella Ji, a first-year from China, felt that the food at the most recent Dim Sum Brunch on March 11 was “pretty accurate.”

“It was a great comfort to have the cuisine from your home country,” Ji said. “My friends and I felt the [intention] was more than the dim sum itself, [it felt nice] to be remembered as part of the school.”

Byron Zhong, also a first-year from China, agreed.

“The Dim Sum Brunch was actually pretty decent, I appreciate their attempt,” Zhong said. “Some of the dishes were more accurate than others. The shumai was pretty authentic, but the dumplings were deep-fried [as opposed to steamed] which is not how most people in China make them.”

Preparing for a themed meal

Preparation for a themed meal is similar to that of a regular meal. Based on historical information, along with what day of the week and time of day the event will be, Dining Services is able to determine what demand is likely to be and thus plan accordingly for how much food they should prepare, according to Klos.

Klos said that themed meals are planned at least three weeks in advance, but they have to plan especially far ahead if they’re using an uncommon or unconventional ingredient and need to give suppliers advance notice. She added that Carmichael and Dewick MacPhie Dining Centers may intentionally prepare different dishes for themed meals.

“Because of the way each dining hall is set up, our teams’ ability to prepare certain things might be better in one hall versus the other,” Klos said. “They really try to use a method of preparation to better take advantage of the equipment they have or the skills of their team. We like to give them the creative license.”

Apart from students, Dining Services employees also largely enjoy the themed meals and the change of pace from time to time.

“I think employees enjoy themed meals because they enjoy pleasing their customers. The themed events are also a change of pace; they generate some excitement. I think everyone can get jazzed for that,” Klos said. “The culinarians sometimes get super excited because they may have helped develop the recipe or may have inspired it. Sometimes the front of house staff are excited because it’s an event they enjoy decorating for.”

Klos added that there have also been more pop-up food events, similar in style but smaller in scale to a full themed meal.

“We did a chocolate fountain on Valentine’s Day, which was super popular,” Klos said. “We’ve also been testing new soup recipes, so the culinary team was doing a sampling period in the dining centers, which gave the students a chance to taste these recipes and tell the chefs what they thought.”

Soucy noted that the concept of serving street food from around the world has gone over well with both students and employees, who were able to help choose representative foods.

“In the past 15 years, with the Food Network and those types of shows, along with farm-to-table and other movements, people have a lot more knowledge about cuisine than when I went to college,” Soucy said. “It makes our job that much more challenging, but it also raises the bar for us and makes us do better.”

Klos is hoping to introduce ramen and pho, along with other popular food items, in the future.

“I’ve seen a couple other university dining centers be able to do [ramen],” Klos said. “There’s some neat things emerging on the food scene, so we’re looking to see if we want to bring in some new, or even just revamp classic, concepts.”

Klos and Soucy noted that student suggestions play a crucial role in Dining Services’ efforts to improve.

“We do what we call ‘Meet the Managers,’ where we ask students what they like and what they’d like to see improved,” Soucy said. “[By] talking to them face-to-face, we get suggestions about themed meals and different things students are interested in seeing in the dining halls. It’s good as a learning experience for us because there are things we may not notice that students then bring to our attention.”

According to Klos, comments and feedback have led to recent changes such as making chopsticks regularly available, serving less Thanksgiving food items during other parts of the year, and the addition of dishes to the regular menu. For example, butternut squash bisque, a popular dish, became a regular menu item after starting out as part of a themed meal.

Klos expressed that Dining Services wants to enable students to take a break from a busy college life through the food and service that they offer.

“We know students are busy, but we hope that when you come to a meal you have a little bit of time to just kind of relax, enjoy your friends and the food,” she said.

Soucy emphasized his desire to give students something to look forward to.

“There’s something important about people coming in and eating together, sitting down and breaking bread,” he said. “It’s a chance for students to build relationships outside of the classroom.”