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College Chefs Beef Up Skills

May 29, 1999

AMHERST, Mass. (AP) _ Gourmet meals in college dining halls may seem like a paradox.

But at a weeklong competition at the University of Massachusetts, college chefs whipped up culinary delights that would actually make students look forward to cafeteria food.

``It sure beats what I have in my freezer _ hot dogs, nachos and things I can throw in the microwave!″ said Nathan Pekala, a college taste tester, as he wolfed down mounds of teriyaki beef, roasted corn, bean sprout melange, and globs of baked brie in phyllo dough with fresh berry sauce and grilled pineapple.

The Collegiate Cuisine 2000 conference gave more than 100 chefs, most of whom work in college dining halls, the chance to beef up on the latest trends in university cuisine.

With a captive clientele largely on meal plans, college cafeterias have long been complacent and bland, conference organizers acknowledged. Student tastes demand more now.

Changing student demographics and greater financial pressures are forcing college dining services to display food more enticingly, spice it more artfully, and serve more vegetarian and ethnic fare prepared to order, like a fine restaurant.

``Before, you put all these vegetables in a wok, and you called it Chinese food. Now, they want black bean sauce. They want oyster sauce,″ said Kenneth Toong, the Hong Kong-born head of dining services at the University of Massachusetts.

On Friday, there was a competition with chefs testing their recipes with a panel of judges. Several students were also picked to taste and evaluate the creations.

There were no dishes with water-logged lima beans or mashed potatoes with the Lake Tahoe of gravy.

Instead, the mystery meats were ostrich and rabbit. The asparagus was so crisp it snapped. And the potato jalapeno calamari quesadilla with red onion marmalade was more than a mouthful.

At the judges’ table, chief instructor David St. John-Grubb (pronounced Groob, not Grub) prodded, poked, nibbled and scrutinized the creations the way others might ponder a Renoir.

In the kitchen, dozens of chefs _ all in traditional, tall white hats and coats _ were feverishly creating appetizers, entrees, side dishes and desserts with ingredients given to them.

Allan Lowen, a chef from Rutgers University, put final touches on plates of teriyaki beef on a bed of wild mushrooms with snow peas, red and yellow peppers, and Oriental noodles tied together by a green onion.

Lowen was most impressed at the workshops by ``all the different colors and different blends and different textures.″

The gold-medal team Friday won for its meal that included the calamari quesadilla, ostrich (skewered and grilled, if you please), marinated lamb roulade, and carrot cake with orange bourbon glaze.

The chef said nearly all the dishes can be duplicated at typical college dining halls with the right training and effort.

But Alex Batten, a 21-year-old vegetarian, said he and some other students are a touch skeptical.

``My initial reaction was, `You’re never going to see this food in the dining commons,‴ he said. ``But I think some of the elements would really carry over.″

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