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Feeding the educated masses
Education feeds the mind and nourishes the soul. So what worldly nourishment stokes these coals of inspiration?
PHOTO: Owen Egan
McGill takes on the responsibility of feeding undergraduates living in residence, as well as those who instruct them: the faculty in their club. Graduate students munch and nibble at their own privately run Thomson House.
Who are the people behind the food?
Susan Campbell has the skinny on keeping students fat. For 20 years, she has been the manager of food services for the McGill residences. She's in charge of designing the menu for over a thousand undergraduates; most of them away from home for the first time.
Cooking for the masses has a bad reputation -- think army cooking, with food prepped hours before meeting its destiny. When Campbell first came to McGill, the modus operandi was to make a stir fry at 2 pm, and start serving it at 5 pm. Needless to say, it wasn't that appetizing. So the cooks learned batch cooking and how to prepare food closer to mealtime.
Now the cooks make three entrées for each meal, soup, dessert, and provide a salad bar. There's a four-week rotating menu, which includes shrimp Creole, pork chops with cranberry sauce, vegetarian couscous, creamy mustard chicken, tortellini carbonara and Chinese spareribs. Food goes fast and is fresh.
The students of the new millennium are more sophisticated, Campbell says, and are aware of food's value. Other changes in the student body? "More vegetarians for sure. And chicken, chicken, chicken. There almost always has to be a chicken option."
As for other meats, pork, lamb, veal -- if it's served more than twice a week (out of roughly three dozen meal options) students will comment, "You're serving a lot of..."
Unless it's deep-fried, of course. The student capacity for grease cannot be underestimated. Campbell says, "You can have more than 350 Pork Schnitzels go at a meal."
Vegetarians are easily accommodated, and plenty of omnivores choose the falafel, too. But vegans are tough to cater to, and aren't guaranteed a hot entrée every meal. The cooks sometimes use eggless egg, tofu, and a variety of grains, and the salad bar always includes chickpeas.
Ironically, Campbell says, "Most vegetarians don't care for vegan-type cooking." They tend to be what she calls "pasta vegetarians." Last year, for example, there was so much demand for noodles and tomato sauce that it was added as an extra entrée, with 60-70 portions every night. Sadly, it's "the nutritional equivalent of white bread and ketchup."
So what about the fabled freshman 15 -- that extra poundage that can creep up on unwitting students? Campbell says, "This is not an eating lifestyle like at home." There's a great choice of desserts. And some students are all too aware of the price they pay for the food, so they want to make sure they get their money's worth.
Dieticians are available for consultation, but not many students take advantage of their service. Eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia, sometimes crop up, which the residence hall directors keep a lookout for.
Although they can't accommodate religious dietary restrictions, the halls arrange for Muslim students to eat later during Ramadan, and pack lunches and breakfasts so they can eat before sunrise and after sundown. Students can use their vouchers for credit at Hillel House for kosher meals, and food services does bring in matzo on high holidays.
Ever keen on improvement, sometimes Campbell and her staff taste-test new products. "That's one of the best parts of my job," she says.
Recently, there was a stuffed pasta taste-off, and they're searching for palatable vegetarian products.
When she heard I'd never experienced residence food, Campbell whisked me over to Douglas Hall. Walking towards the building, I could smell garlic -- a good sign. We made our way through labyrinthine hallways into the gleam of a stainless steel kitchen. Tubs of translucent peeled onions, pots and pans everywhere, spotlessly clean. It was late afternoon: the calm before the storm. I sampled tangy chili and robust, garlicky chicken fusilli at a long wooden table under a high vaulted ceiling with sturdy beams.
Thomson House executive chef Jessie Newman has long days. She comes in mid-afternoon, preps for the next day's lunch and any events. Although chefs and sous-chefs take care of the day-to-day running, she makes all the pasta sauces and salad dressings, and works all the functions.
There are weddings almost every weekend in the summer, conferences or wine and cheeses in the winter. Holiday parties are booked throughout December, when departments have their graduate student parties, which could be full-catered affairs, or wine and cheeses, or potlucks.
But access to the lunchtime nosh is one of campus's coveted privileges. Only members and their guests are allowed in, but it's rumoured that professors try to sneak past the guard on the pretence of looking for their TA. The enticement? Good prices in a low-key, cheerful setting where there's a flower on every table and art on the walls.
Their online menu shows that today, happy lunchers will choose between seafood stew with miche bread, cheddar and tomato with curried chick pea spread panini, or a quiche with Monterey Jack, cheddar, artichoke hearts, red pepper and thyme. Oh, and don't forget the usual array of pastas, salads, or a tantalizing tamari tofu burger.
Newman muses, "I like designing menus, and researching recipes," and aims to keep the menu varied and vegetarian-friendly. Paninis are the rage, now the regular Thursday night bar food. On Friday nights, there are four choices of pizza.
"It's getting busier and busier, we're getting good feedback. And people are getting more adventurous."
She remembers assembling a panini with chicken and pickled ginger mayonnaise, and wondering, "Would it go?"
They loved it! It began to seem that the quirkier she was, the better the response. "If you can get them to try it," they'll be keen, she discovered. Especially if the waiters are good at suggesting new food.
"Comfort foods are really fun," she says. Shepherd's pie, meatloaf, "people love that kind of stuff." And now that the weather's getting colder, you can expect more hearty and heart-warming meals to fuel the ever-churning graduate student's mind.
At the top of the academic food chain sits the Faculty Club. Although it has an exclusive reputation, community members can take advantage of its services and genteel atmosphere.
Executive chef Pierre Majois thoughtfully admits, "It's a great responsibility, to be a chef for the club." Imagine cooking for such visiting dignitaries as Governor General Adrienne Clarkson on a regular basis?
I meet with Majois and Nick Bourbouhakis, the club's general director. Both have been with the club for about three years.
Bourbouhakis is keen to get out the word that the club no longer serves the rubber chicken of yore, and is concentrating on top-quality produce.
On average, the club feeds 150 people per day, most of whom reserve in advance. Aside from the dining room and downstairs pub, the club hosts banquets and smaller affairs. They never repeat the same dish in one month, nor do they simply rotate the menus. Recent dishes include pheasant with pears, deer medallions with red wine sauce, squid Niçoise, grilled salmon with leek fondue, and manicotti with sun-dried tomato and figs.
What they serve depends on the season, the day of the week. Since it's hunting season now, deer, pheasant, and other game are on the menu. Friday lunches are very busy, Mondays less so. Bourbouhakis has become so attuned to the clientele that he swears he can tell what they'll order as soon as they walk in the door.
Is there a vegetarian trend, like elsewhere? Majois smiled. "Ce n'est pas un clientèle végétarien."
Fish is very popular, he explains, although Majois had to shake the French custom of serving it with the head still on. He acknowledges that the club's members, like most North Americans, also won't eat fish with bones still in it. So he serves fillets of salmon, trout, char, monkfish.
The members are bullish on beef and veal, yet shun pork. Not for religious reasons, but because pork is rather out of vogue, despite the efforts of Canadian pig farmers.
The trend is towards lighter and exotic recipes. A traditional duck meal might not do well, but when Majois made duck with ginger, 15 were ordered. Heavy cream sauces are out, clear tastes and ingredient essentialism are in.
Majois eagerly searches out new recipes, often through the Internet, and is inspired by the flavours of Asia. He just received spice samples from India and he's considering how to use them.
Theme weeks keep the club's members happy, like last year's culinary swing through the Pacific nations, featuring food from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The upcoming oyster festival will keep shuckers busy.
Food is sent throughout the house. Majois guides me through room after room, somber ones, gilt airy ones; each with their distinctive character and wall sconces and bric-a-brac. There are plumply stuffed armchairs, fresh flowers and inviting couches. Beautiful old samovars and silverware that he rescued from the basement, shined up and put on display. A nook where ladies play bridge Wednesday evenings, accompanied by tea and cookies. Cherubim frolic around one room's perimeter, there are bas-relief grapes and oak trim in another.
Majois confesses the rooms help inspire him, stimulate his creativity. "You should see them when all the dishes and crystal and settings are in place," he says.
Then, the enthusiastic master's domain. The kitchen reveals aisles of steel harbouring deep pots of soups and sauces, warm amuse-gueules in ovens. Sous-chefs prepare dainty trays of sandwiches, garnished with edible orchids. We enter the walk-in fridge, bigger than the club's elevator, to glimpse trays of enticing fruit, gleaming de-membraned orange segments, grapes, more flowers. Rolls of fish fillets snug against lemon wedges.
As fast-food courts slowly choke the downtown core, the busy minds of McGill can relax in knowing that nearby, sustenance is prepared lovingly and with style.