OP-EDS

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November 21, 2008

Pack your hairnets and go

The U of C dining staff would not fare well on Top Chef.

[img id="77033" align="alignleft"] As I grudgingly take my meals at the Burton-Judson Dining Commons, I often like to imagine how the U of C dining staff would fare were they to compete on Bravo’s Emmy-nominated reality show, Top Chef. Invariably, the scene around me fades out and a new one fades in: Supermodel and host Padma Lakshmi is hunching over the judges’ table, her big Indian eyes wide with grief. “University of Chicago dining hall workers,” she says sadly but with conviction. “Please pack your knives and go.”

It’s a pretty standard send-off. All but the winners of the title and the $100,000 prize money must suffer it eventually; despite their earnest attempts at delivering exciting, experimental dishes and memories to last a lifetime, the chefs too often end up leaving the judges with a bad taste in their mouths. Perhaps you now see why the dining staff seems so perfectly suited for the show. As students of the University of Chicago, we too dish out thousands of dollars in hopes of finding something new and tasty on our plates each day, but so often get stuck with the experimental instead.

Georgia peach chicken was the first dish to really throw me.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said to the person in line next to me. “As in, peaches peaches? Peaches the fruit?” Or was I somehow misreading the card? Or perhaps, was this something completely new, a peach I’d never seen or heard of before? But upon leaning forward as far as the sneeze shield would allow, I saw them for myself: the slimy, previously canned, suddenly repulsive wedges, floating limply in a murky puddle of brown, like an unfortunate school of belly-up goldfish. They were peaches, all right. And they were actually in there, with the chicken. “And that’s chicken, like…the bird, right?” I tried a cutlet, of course, because I was curious. It was just as rancid as I’d predicted. But that, I realize now, is the whole idea.

They know we’re young. They know we’re adventurous and carefree, willing to try anything once. And they have a buffet to run, trays to fill and refill two to three meals a day, seven days a week.

I empathize with their plight. I understand why getting creative with food is not only appropriate in their situation, but necessary. But picking a random can of fruit off the shelf and tossing it in with the poultry is just not okay. I mean, it’s one thing when Gordon Ramsay does it, and sure, they got me the first time, but I’ve learned my lesson, all right? I now know that Georgia peach chicken is no more successful in practice than it is in theory, nor are couscous with green peas and mint, wild rice with apples, and chicken breast with pecan sauce. I know they’re neither exciting nor innovative nor gourmet, like they’re advertised. I know they’re little more than this week’s losing dishes.

“University of Chicago dining staff,” I want to say. “Please pack your hairnets and go.”

When people call me overly harsh, I giggle—partly because these people obviously eat at Pierce or Bartlett, partly because I know the metaphorical bar in my head has been set quite low enough. I’m not looking for fine French cuisine or Lobster Thermidor à la Julia Child. I’m looking for crappy, boring cafeteria slop, but done well. It’s far too harrowing an experience to find that the average dish is so snooty and obscure that I’ve never even heard of it and after forcing it down, have to log on to Wikipedia just to see what it is I’m supposed to have eaten.

The mysterious chicken with mole was particularly upsetting. As I took the first bite and considered the possibilities, neither chicken with facial growth nor chicken with small burrowing mammal seemed completely out of the question, but how much worse it was to learn that, in fact, chicken with spicy chocolate sauce—that’s right, chocolate sauce—had snuck its way onto the menu, and that the staffers had tried to pass it off like it was nothing special, just another Wednesday night entrée. I was shocked and appalled, and I was this close—this close—to writing a nasty letter and putting it in the suggestion box.

“Don’t be fooled” is what I’m trying to say. Don’t be taken in by the funny names and intriguing ingredients. Revel in the days when the food is merely bland and tacky, like during last week’s construction-themed dinner, where orange cones and caution tape decorated the display for rice brick chicken and concrete cornbread. Don’t let them get you like they got me. And complain. Complain loudly. Because, in the end, we’re the judges with $100,000, and we shouldn’t give it out to just any old cook.

Luke Dumas is a first-year in the College.