Our dining halls are best when they are most personal. The proof is in the pudding: the personalized food stations often have the longest lines. These stations’ appeal is obvious. There is a clear draw to both designing your meal to your exact specifications and having someone cook your food in front of your own eyes.
Currently, dining halls at Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College are focusing on lifting the curtain behind who’s making our food and putting our chefs at the forefront of our experience. In a system of self-service cafeteria lines, these stations’ popularity highlights both the importance and current lack of interaction between the 5C student body and dining hall staff.
Other 5C dining hall stations offer the same products every week with changing chefs. However, “Eddie’s Toast Bar” at Pitzer and “Mike’s Burger Bar” at Harvey Mudd reverse this paradigm by offering changing products prepared by the same chef. This shifts the focus away from the food and onto the chef. It simultaneously highlights the chef’s role in the food’s preparation, while offering an opportunity for the chef to build a closer relationship with the student eating.
“We’re always trying to look for things that are different or more innovative than what we’ve done in the past,” Pitzer Dining Hall’s General Manager Cynthia Bennington said.
Bennington’s notion of “different” indeed seems to be working – as every other Thursday night, 5C students line up for the newest edition to Pitzer’s breakfast for dinner (“AM in the PM”) station, namely Eddie Soto’s toast bar. Students are usually given the option of two savory toasts and one sweet toast, while the toast bar menu remains a surprise.
“Eddie’s so open; he became the Thursday grill special guy for breakfast,” Bennington said. “Last semester, when we started doing some of the toast ideas, we realized that people really were starting to like them. It used to be that our Thursday night “AM in the PM” was always an omelette bar, but now we’re rotating it. There’s a toast bar, an omelette bar, and pancake bar as well.”
Students seem to be enjoying the toast bar in both flavor and experience.
“Stations like these connect a name [of] a face to a food,” Danny Guimaraes PZ '18 said. “Just including the name of the chef in the station name does a lot. I feel some sort of a relationship with Eddie. He used to make me toast for breakfast, and now he’s making me toast for dinner. We’ve grown up together.”
Mike’s Burger Bar is based on the same idea. Every Tuesday night, chef Mike Telleria offers a new signature burger. With the option of having the burger “my way or your way,” Telleria gives dining-hall-goers the opportunity for a personal experience and a moment of connection.
Over the course of a Tuesday night, Telleria serves “more than two hundred burgers, and ninety-percent of them are ‘my way,’” Telleria wrote in an email to TSL. “I get the ideas for the burgers from TV shows, ads, magazines, student feedback, and coworker feedback.”
Telleria carries himself with an undeniable sense of confidence. Once finished perfecting a burger, he often slides the plate down the silver counter to the eater and says something along the lines of, “Try that one on for size.”
“I look forward to Mike’s Burger Bar every week,” Corey Smith Scripps ‘20 said. “I know that I’m getting a product that Mike believes in every time, and the surprise of a different burger every week is fun. I feel like I know Mike through his burgers.”
Students love Mike’s Burger Bar and Eddie’s Toast Bar, but not only for their food. Much of these stations’ appeal is a result of the experience. Food is inherently personal, and there is an intimacy between a chef and an eater. These stations humanize both the ordering process and the chef, which juxtaposes the buffet lines.
“Toast Bar and Burger Bar stand out to me because it’s the same people there every week.” Ryan Cullen PZ ‘19 said. “I always know what I’m getting, but with those [stations], I also know who I’m getting. I know Eddie and Mike, and Eddie and Mike know me.”