Lunch at the University of Vermont has come a long way since cafeteria lines and mystery meat. At noontime on a recent school day, the entire campus appeared to be converging on the new $61 million Dudley H. Davis Center - and it wasn't for the "green" LEED certification; it was for the food.
The building's edible offerings - a café, pub and marketplace with a multiplicity of options - are even more impressive than its flushless urinals and gender-neutral bathrooms. On the "ground floor," past a lounge with squishy chairs and pool tables, hungry academics can chill in a casual restaurant that serves beer and wine to students old enough to drink. No time to relax? There's an airport-style convenience store with snacks and frozen foods galore.
Up a wide, curving flight of stairs is the main dining area, called The Commons Marketplace. Envision a classier version of a mall food court, where signs advertise the local vegetables being showcased each week and vegan selections are de rigueur. Plus, unlike at a food court, you can pick up items from various vendors and pay on the way out - three check-out stations accept cash, Catscratch, UVM meal points and credit cards. Coolers line the walls, filled with ready-to-eat fare and beverages including Vermont Soy soymilk and local cider.
What's competing with the grab-and-go cold sandwiches and containers of fruit 'n' cottage cheese during the bustling lunch rush? Long lines form in front of Sakura's sushi counter and a stand called Capers, which is tucked away in the corner and serves Mediterranean-inspired vegetarian fare. That particular day they served a savory baba ganoush flatbread sprinkled with pine nuts, cheese and flecks of parsley. Not as sexy-sounding, but every bit as satisfying, was the black beans and rice with salsa and slivers of perfect avocado.
Across the way, at "590 Main," students find comfort in a small selection of dining hall standards. One station holds turkey club sandwiches and slices of glistening cheese pizza; another serves up brownies and Rice Krispy treats.
Slightly more adventurous students and faculty members queue up at Sukhi's Quick-N-Ezee Indian Food to get a taste of the Southern hemisphere. The eatery began as a stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco and expanded into a minor prepared-foods empire. At its Vermont outpost in The Commons, staffers serve up three Indian entrées each day, blending the company's prepared sauces and spice pastes with freshly cooked meats and veggies. Sukhi's slogan, "Indian food for everyone," is code for: It won't burn your mouth.
That day, the trio of options consisted of chicken curry, lentil dal and matar paneer - peas with cheese in a delicately spiced, tomato-based sauce. A plate piled with all three on a bed of long-grain rice rang up at $6.49. Not enough starch? A piece of puffy nan bread comes on the side.
The gluey lentil stew was just OK; a bit more salt would have been nice. The peas in the matar paneer tasted canned - but hey, this is a university. (Hand shelling might precipitate an increase in tuition.) The addictive chicken curry was the best of the three, with chunks of meat smothered in a sauce that hinted at garlic and ginger. It tasted great on the perfectly fluffy rice.
Like the Indian dishes, the soup offerings at "Stocks and Stems" change daily, but five choices ensure there's something for everyone. Last Thursday, these included beef noodle, egg drop, pasta fagioli, carrot rosemary and fresh tomato tarragon. Chef Bob Shea said the kitchen aims to offer two vegan soups each day, though sometimes it only manages one.
The bright orange, carrot-rosemary puree passed the vegan test and the flavor one: The rosemary was detectable but not overpowering, and the mixture had the sweet flavor of freshly cooked carrots. The pasta fagioli resembled the Progresso version I ate as a child. There were beans, pieces of floppy pasta and a few beads of oil atop the reddish broth. The paler, gentler egg drop was elegant in its simplicity, tasting mainly of chicken broth. Tender slips of egg added textural interest.
Chef Shea admits that, though his staff makes as many soups as they can, they do resort to using packaged broth. "We would like to make at least veggie stock in-house," he says, looking to the future. "That would be easier than getting a bunch of chicken bones."
Too bad they can't use the leavings from Brennan's Pub and Bistro downstairs. That establishment aims to get students chomping on as much chicken as possible. The pub, named after donors Robert and Carolyn Brennan, has partnered with a New Orleans operation named WOW Café and Wingery, and offers WOW's American fusion menu chock-full of sandwiches, salads and, obviously, wings.
Once cooked, the poultry is coated in the company's sticky, pre-made sauces, and here they don't stop at hot stuff or barbecue. Those who like their wings with an exotic tang can opt for one of many toppings, including Parisian lemon pepper, Polynesian or Asian teriyaki. They're pricey, though. A dozen wings with the sauce of your choice costs $11.99. Local delivery joint Big Daddy's charges only $7 for the same number of chix sticks with one of their 15 sauces.
Are WOW's saucy wings worth it? On my visit, the Buffalo II, a spicier version of the traditional hot wing sauce, fit the heating bill nicely; the soy-flavored Asian marinade worked if you like your wings both salty and sweet. Thick honey-barbecue and Polynesian sauces, on the other hand, were fairly cloying. The Polynesian was just a chunkier version of duck sauce. The default side dish - a serving of wilted fries - can be replaced with a healthy combo of carrot and celery sticks with Bleu cheese dressing.
Early university press releases touted the "local foods" the Davis Center would offer. Pungent as its taste of the South may be, WOW is underwhelming in that regard. Paul Bahan, director of marketing for University Dining Services, explains that students gave WOW's products top marks in a brand fair hosted by the University, and giving them what they want is a top priority. Plus, the N.O. company "committed to using as many local products as they can." By way of localvore conciliation, Bahan points out that a sauce made with local ingredients, perhaps maple, would be an excellent addition to WOW's repertoire.
If you want to stick exclusively to edible offerings from the Green Mountains, two food stands just outside the marketplace proper will do you right: a Ben & Jerry's scoop shop and a branch of the hyper-popular burrito joint New World Tortilla. It's clear that the UVM alums who own NWT are selling a slew of Thai chicken wraps on their old stomping grounds. The line of chattering chowhounds stretched out the door of the eating area.
Exiting the building, it's worth checking out the CAT Pause. The convenience-style store carries Advil, condoms, chewing gum and energy drinks, but is also stocked with mounds of Vermont products, most of which are prominently displayed. Hungry students can slog back to their dorms with everything from chai-flavored yogurt made by Woodstock Water Buffalo to local salsas and dips to frozen American Flatbread. An unscientific count found 24 brands from the Green Mountain state.
At Brennan's and in The Commons Marketplace, food is still more sensible than sensual, but with all of the options, it's pretty easy to find something appealing. And the man who is responsible for the birth of the building, UVM Prez Dan Fogel, seems to think so, too. As I gnawed on nan at a comfy booth in the waffle-cone-scented dining area, he was waiting in line to pay for his lunch.
Sodexho caters to local producers
Sodexho used to be a bad word in Vermont's fresh-food circles. In September 2004, Seven Days reported on a Champlain College junior's crusade to get the French food-service multinational off campus, citing its alleged human-rights violations and ownership of private prisons. A year later, some UVM students raised objections to Sodexho on less altruistic - if no less appropriate - grounds. On a blog none too subtly called UVM Barf, Nick Carter mocked the company's PR claim that it tries to "evoke a passionate response" in dining-hall gourmets. He opined that "the only passionate response I've had towards Sodexho's services at UVM has been passionate disgust."
That was then, this is now. At UVM, of late anyhow, Sodexho wears a friendlier face - one that's more receptive, at least in appearance, to students' expressed desires for environmentally sound practices and fresher food.
Grub at the Groovy UV has been on an upswing since the Harris-Millis dining hall was spruced up seven years ago. Suddenly, food that used to sit in steam tables for hours was being prepared to order, and folks with food allergies could ask that unwanted ingredients be omitted. The newer Marché on the ground floor of the Living and Learning complex was one of the first "units" on campus to make meat-and-dairy-free food a regular deal. "I don't specifically subscribe to the vegan lifestyle," explains University Dining Services Marketing Director Paul Bahan, "but I find myself gravitating to those offerings because I like the freshness that I see."
The construction of the Davis Center was another culinary leap for UVM - and Sodexho. Thanks to its collaboration with the folks who are working to make the school increasingly eco-friendly, the conglomerate now has a showcase for its new and improved food ethics.
Sodexho has formed an unusual partnership with Black River Produce, which brings in a quantity of fruits and veggies from places like Champlain Orchards, Arethusa Farm and Sam Mazza's. It's unusual because vendors who work with Sodexho have to jump through a number of hoops, such as coming up with a $5 million dollar insurance policy. Few local producers and distributors can pull that off.
How did Black River do it? According to Bahan, "They had a policy of that size already, because they were already doing a good volume of business throughout the state . . . they came to the table and followed the criteria..." Now, small farmers and producers who work with Black River can send their produce to the University without paying for the insurance themselves.
Although romaine lettuce and citrus fruits still arrive from afar, mesclun mix, corn and carrots are likely to be grown within 50 miles of campus. As fall progresses, the chefs will whip up delicious dishes with Vermont-grown apples, as well as butternut and delicata squashes.
Over the past few years, Sodexho has been phasing in sustainable practices such as using "greener" cleaners and serving food on real dishes as a way to reduce the school's environmental impacts. All of these are in full swing at the Davis Center. Composting is another important initiative. Educational posters, soon to hang in the dining area, show how the Davis Center's back-of-the-house food-scrap program provides precious fertilizer to some of the very same farms that supply it with produce.
One thing dining services can't do: collect compost alongside the trash and recycling that students discard after meals. "We made a decision with the UVM recycling department not to collect compost [post-dining] because it's been contaminated 100 percent of the time," explains Tom Oliver, operations director for the Davis Center's eateries.
What does he mean by contaminated? Oliver gestures at a young woman who's in the process of scraping her pizza crusts and a few errant lettuce leaves into the recycling bin labeled "bottles and cans." No matter how well his staff marks the containers, he gripes, empty chip bags and Power Bar wrappers end up mixed in with the apple cores and banana peels. They'll have to find a way to do it eventually, though, because they plan to switch to compostable to-go containers.
Where does the school stand in comparison with other campuses that use Sodexho? "We've been ahead of the curve for some time," explains Bahan, whose work regularly takes him to schools around New England. In the past couple of years, he boasts, "Many universities that are also under Sodexho's umbrella have come to us [for help] and are starting to do some of the things that UVM has done for years." For example, local schools such as St. Michael's and Champlain are jumping on the bandwagon. "Do they do it to the same extent we do? Not yet. But I'm sure they will be in the coming years," Bahan proposes.
Oliver describes himself as "the sustainability champion for 20 years," but acknowledges that change can't happen overnight. "We wanted to balance the needs of the students with our goal of sustainability," he says. "I've learned that you choose your battles carefully."
And those battles are ongoing. Right now, poultry still comes primarily from out of state. "We could give Misty Knoll Farms our entire business of poultry on campus, but they don't have the capacity," says Oliver. Another one: finding ways to preserve Vermont produce for use during the long winter. "We've been working with people . . . to increase that through storage and processing," Bahan states. Basil pesto, one of "the most popular flavors on campus," is high on his list of products to make in-house and freeze.
Helping market partners like Sukhi's, Ben & Jerry's and New World Tortilla meet the Davis Center's sustainability guidelines is another continuing effort. "If we told the bulk of the student body that we were going to force New World Tortilla to be sustainable, that would be an issue, because they wouldn't be able to afford the food," Oliver points out. Still, he believes, "There's little things that you can do . . . the whole thing is a process." And right now, Sodexho's operations at UVM seem to be in the process of getting a lot more palatable.