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Halibut Provençal en Papillote by Nikki Sawyer Moore

Halibut Provençal en Papillote by Nikki Sawyer Moore

Food has always been a big deal for college students. But today, it’s not just about sustenance—it’s becoming a main course in classes, politics, and plans for the future. Today’s student foodies follow an increasing number of alumni who are making food their business.

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By Meg Kimmel

The late-April open dinner at Eco House —a residential option for students passionate about environmental issues and education—was Gilcrest Farm chicken from Iron Station, N.C., in a light cream sauce with Cajun spices, roasted sweet potatoes from Barbee Farms in Concord, N.C., carrots from Healthy Home Market with rosemary from the garden out back, salad greens tossed with granola, and a vanilla spice cake served with fruit compote. Sea salt mixed with lavender was on the table. House Chef William Koster ’12 wryly admits that the rum in the dessert was “not local.”

Koster plans to attend culinary school after graduation. He is committed to locally sourced groceries, and for packaged staples like olive oil, he consults a Web site to find the most environment-friendly products. “Cooking,” he says, “is really about how I like to interact with people.”

The communal experience of eating is key to an increased awareness of food on campus, but ethics and environmentalism are also at the table. Jenn Burns ’12 arrived at Davidson with a seasoned palate—“I knew all the best chefs in Indianapolis by the time I was 10”—and organized Food Club in her sophomore year. She’s spearheaded a collaboration with Dining Services to bring more local foods to Vail Commons and Davis Café, where you can now find produce from local farmers, and even from the college’s community garden. “And Big Oak Beef and sausage from Grateful Growers are now standard in Davis Café,” she says, referring to a farm in Cabarrus County. Food has always been a big deal for college students. But today, it’s not just about sustenance—it’s becoming a main course in classes, politics, and plans for the future. Today’s student foodies follow an increasing number of alumni who are making food their business.

“People have started to really think about food at Davidson—where it comes from, how it is produced and transported, what it means to us in cultural terms,” says Burns. She is excited about the growing campus presence of Food Club, which sponsored multiple events this year, catered a Dean Rusk function in the spring, and helped PS, a student catering service, source local food for its annual community dinner.

Vail Commons Executive Chef Craig Mombert’s Grilled Chicken with Mango Salsa

Vail Commons Executive Chef Craig Mombert’s Grilled Chicken with Mango Salsa

Davidson’s catalog now lists a growing selection of food-related courses, like Food and Culture, Food as Symbol and Spectacle, Development and Sustainability, and Food and Religion. Just before the college added a new Environmental Studies major, Burns had begun to design her own major, with a focus on food, through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. Her thesis is on institutional food systems—like Davidson’s Dining Services.

The Davidson Farmers Market is a popular Saturday morning destination for many students, but particularly for Charlie Toder ’13 and Kaitlin Roberts ’13. The two Food Club members taught a class in cooking with local foods, funded by a college Green Grant. The course was so oversubscribed they had to devise a selection process to choose their students. Toder cares about sustainability, but for him, “Fresh foods, picked at the right time, eaten while fresh—they just taste better.” For Roberts, it’s the politics. “When we talk about local food, we aren’t just talking about miles,” she says. “It’s about how the food is grown, how animals are treated, and labor issues like working conditions and compensation.”

Was Sara Nordstrand ’14 a foodie when she arrived on campus last August? “No! No! No!” she laughed. But she and Chai Lu Bohannan ’14 applied for funds to attend Power Shift 2011 in Washington, D.C., with 10,000 other college students committed to green issues. They returned more excited than ever about pursuing renewable energy and sustainable living on campus, with an emphasis on how we eat. “We just have to get that proposed lake on campus to produce thermal heat—it is the cleanest possible energy,” said Nordstrand. “When I am an alumna, that is the kind of project I will support.”

And their dream? “A working farm on some of the 150 acres of land the college just bought. It could supply Commons!” says Nordstrand. Charlie Toder is emphatic: “This is not a trend.” For him and his fellow foodies, it is about how to live. Time will tell, but for now, Davidson students can look to an increasing number of alumni who have made food their business.

Fresh Food in Brooklyn

“The hard work is done before the food gets to us,” says George Weld ’95, who opened egg in Brooklyn in 2005, and is about to open Parish Hall just around the corner. “It’s the farmers who prepared the soil and cultivated the plants and raised the crops and animals responsibly—we just let the food shine.”

It’s a labor-intensive business, though, and Weld is grateful that he and his family near the two restaurants. An English major at Davidson, he has an unfinished novel in a drawer somewhere. He may get back to that someday, but for now, he loves the “immediate and fulfilling expression of happiness that comes from sharing food, if you do it right.”

It’s a good time to be working with food, he says. “We’re engaged in different ways—intellectually in terms of how to do things better and what sustainability really means. And there are ethical issues about food production and how to treat people who do the work.”

Service is in the mix as well. Annual dinners at egg support a local high school’s work with food and nutrition, and once a year, Weld takes the students to the small farm he has a couple hours north of Brooklyn. “These kids are not from the Whole Foods demographic—they generally have no access to our kind of food,” Weld says.

“In the restaurant business,” he says, “everything begins with generosity.”

Learn more about egg:

The Best Spot in NoDa

NoDa? It’s an arts district in North Charlotte’s historic mill village, two miles from Uptown on North Davidson Street at 36th, familiar to young Davidson alumni who live in the Queen City. In 2009, Jeff Tonidandel ’98, his wife, Jamie Brown ’99, and his business partner, Paul Manley, claimed a prime corner in the neighborhood and graced it with the popular Crêpe Cellar Kitchen and Pub. They recently opened Growlers Pourhouse just next door, where you can enjoy all-domestic craft beers on tap and cask ale from an antique hand pump.

A political science major who played varsity tennis at Davidson, Tonidandel rides up I-77 every week to join his brother, Associate Professor of Psychology Scott Tonidandel ’96, for pickup basketball in Belk Arena. The Crêpe Cellar serves “everyday European cuisine and neighborhood American pub fare,” with all the food made in-house—“except for the bread and catsup.” The chefs even make their own hot dogs, particularly popular next door at Growlers, as are the fresh oysters.

Crêpes may be the headliner here, but the menu holds other delights, like the Black and Blue Po’ Boy or the Roasted Artichokes. Seriously good.

Learn more:

Pancakes in Vermont

Could it have been that semester in France? When history major Jon Adler ’01 started selling crêpes as a street vendor in Burlington, Vt., to supplement his “real” job in Web development, he was bitten by the restaurant bug. Today he and his brother Benjamin are part owners of the Skinny Pancake on the Burlington waterfront, as well as two more eateries, including the Chubby Muffin.

As they learned how restaurants purchase food, the Adlers didn’t like what they saw: gigantic providers, bulk pricing, low quality, little eye toward sustainability, “and without a single local business person benefitting,” says Adler. Passionate about finding a better way, the brothers began a number of innovative practices to promote local farmers and food producers, like an annual food forecast that allows them to create growing contracts with farmers before the season. “We know we’ll need 4,000 pounds of basil, for example, so we can guarantee that sale to a local farmer for the season,” said Benjamin Adler. They also award $500 gardening grants to promote tri-seasonal community gardening.

“Most local farm-to-plate restaurants are fantastic, but very expensive, and we’re out to prove that that trade-off doesn’t need to happen,” Jon Adler says. “Our focus is on buying locally grown food, but when we cannot do that, we buy from local companies.” The Adlers’ lesson: local food is not only for patrons of five-star restaurants, but “can be accessible to anyone for less than $10 a plate on average.”

Learn more about Skinny Pancake and The Chubby Muffin:

The Commons Man

His job is to serve 1,500 meals for hungry Davidson students, every day.

His biggest challenge? Food allergies. “It used to be just peanuts or lactose intolerance. Today, it’s anything. And everything.” But Davidson’s executive chef, Craig Mombert, accommodates whatever comes his way, welcoming students into his open kitchen to talk about special preparations and needs.

With degrees from Albert State College and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Mombert oversees a staff of 14, including cooks, bakers, and grill and prep cooks. “We run a scratch kitchen,” he says with pride. With an increasingly food-savvy campus, Mombert and Dining Services Director Dee Phillips are looking for ways to move their operation toward new choices and progressively more sustainable practices. “We are developing partnerships with growers,” says Phillips, “and have added a number of regular vegetarian and vegan options to the menu.” Quinoa, hard to source just a few years ago, is now a daily item.

“And we use everything!” Mombert says. Carrot shavings are ground and dehydrated to become “carrot sand,” to be sprinkled on a dish as a garnish. “I love my dehydrator. And my stock pot.”

Commons also serves a lot of international foods these days, as well as more exotic dishes like Pumpkin Seed-Encrusted Tofu with a lemongrass sauce.

But the students’ all-time favorite? It’s still Chicken Parm.

Julie Ruble’s mouthwatering Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake.

Julie Ruble’s mouthwatering Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake.

The Queen of Cheesecake

As an English-biology double major, Julie Ruble ’06 is accustomed to all-nighters. And that’s exactly how she manages her life as a teacher at Davidson’s Woodlawn School by day and mighty baker-blogger by night. And by weekend.

“I usually cook all night on Friday nights,” she says. And Saturdays.

Ruble’s specialty is desserts, and her most special specialty is cheesecake—in a dizzying array of flavors.

All can be seen, and almost tasted, on her popular blog, Willow Bird Baking, where she pairs her love of cooking with her love of writing, as well as her burgeoning skills as a food photographer.

She began the blog to challenge herself, but has discovered the delight of challenging others, building their confidence, and empowering them to accomplish things they never dreamed were possible. Sound familiar? Yes, she admits, her college professors often pushed her beyond where she thought she could go.

After a recent “cheesecake challenge,” one reader wrote, “This challenge has inspired me to take more risks in the kitchen, something I’ve never done.” One of Ruble’s seventh-graders took the challenge as well, following her how-to video step by step. Ruble made the video as part of a Foodbuzz competition to find the “next food-blog star.” She was one of a handful to survive through nine of  the 10 challenges. But with between 1,300 and 1,500 readers a day, Ruble didn’t need FoodBuzz to declare her a star.

And what does she do with all her creations? “Oh, I eat them! But only on the weekends.”

Learn More about Julie Ruble ’06 and Willow Bird Baking:

At Your Service

Throwing a cocktail party for your boss? Need a novel team-building exercise for your department? Have a friend going through a rough patch? Nikki Sawyer Moore ’03 to the rescue!

After graduation, Moore taught English as a second language in Ecuador, where she came to love the markets and fresh foods—and the pleasure of preparing a good meal. After a stint organizing alumni events back at alma mater, she gave in to that love of cooking and “growling stomach” and headed to culinary school at Johnson and Wales University, graduating summa cum laude with an associate’s degree—and a sure sense of purpose.

In 2009 Sawyer founded Food Love, a personal chef service in Charlotte that offers cooking classes, private dinners, and events in your home. Along the way, she’s followed her entrepreneurial nose into more and more services, not to mention regular “Chef Nikki” appearances on the Charlotte Today show.

“I find cooking relaxing, and when you prepare a meal, you work on it, you enjoy it, you clean up—and it’s done.” That satisfaction spills over into her teaching—“It may be what I enjoy the most,” says Moore, who develops all the recipes she uses in her classes.

As a component of Food Love, Moore began Minced, a savory blog with recipes like Soupe au Pistou or Caramelized Onion and Gruyere Tart. Tune in for videos from her TV appearances—and watch her step-by-step process for making Halibut Provençal en Papillote.

Learn more about Nikki Moore ’03 and Food Love:

Sustainable Joe?

Over the past 10 years, Summit Coffee has brewed or sold more than 130,000 pounds of  organic, shade grown, and fairly traded
coffee from small coffee farmers in 19 different countries around the world—a great deal of that sipped or guzzled by Davidson students, faculty, and staff. Owner Tim Helfrich ’00 has combined sustainability, music, and a commitment to the local community into his successful brew at the Main Street shop.

“The idea is to build and operate in the coffee industry in a way that has long-term sustainability. This means educating farmers about sustainable and organic farming practices and providing them with financial incentives to adopt these practices. The result is a healthier environment and better wage for the farmers—and better quality coffee for the Summit customers,” says Helfrich.

Learn more about Summit Coffee:

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