Dozens of faculty and staff got a taste of Elon’s newest dining hall during practice meals.
The burners were lit and the grills hot Thursday morning at Lakeside Dining Hall as ARAMARK Chef Pinky Varghese moved from station to station rearranging plates and giving instructions while workers hurried to prep their dishes.
“All your equipment is working?” asked Vickie Somers, director of auxiliary services at Elon as she walked alongside Varghese.
“We’re trying to figure out the deep fryer,” the chef replied pointing at a group of employees gathered behind one of the counters.
“That’s why we do practice meals,” she said with a smile.
Those practice meals were served Thursday and Friday to selected Elon faculty, staff and students before the dining hall’s grand opening Feb. 4.
The dining hall features “local,” “home” and “international” stations. The local station includes a selection of foods seasonally available in North Carolina while the home station spotlights home-style favorites like hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. There is also a selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
The international station features global cuisine with a different country represented each week. Chef Varghese chose to kick off the culinary world tour Thursday with Thai food.
“We have Thai by Thai,” he said, adding that the food was prepared by one of his staffers who is from Thailand.
While Varghese has plenty of experience with international cuisine, he welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with members of his staff, who represent five countries: China, India, Poland, Thailand and the United States.
Having such a diverse crew, he said, adds to the flare of the dining hall, which is adjacent to the Global Neighborhood, Elon’s innovative living-learning community with an international theme that is scheduled to partially open in the fall.
“It’s very exciting. This is a very unique collaboration with the campus,” said Jeff Gazda, resident district manager for ARAMARK. “I cannot think of anywhere else in the country where we offer something like this. Our goal in being a partner is to align with the university’s vision.”
Gazda said the dining hall staff will talk about what worked and what didn’t based on their own experience and feedback from visitors who came to the practice lunches to ensure they are ready to handle the high volume of customers they expect to see next week.
Based on some of the reactions heard around the hall Thursday afternoon, the practice runs were a success.
“It’s great to be one of the first people to be in the new dining hall. The selection has been quite extensive; I’ve been very impressed,” said Steve Mencarini, director of Elon’s Center for Leadership. “I love Thai; Thai is one of my favorites.”
At first glance, he said, the dining hall reminded him of Hogwarts, the fictional school in the Harry Potter series, with its “floating lights and awesome color tables.”
“It looks like a really great place I wish I would have had when I was in school,” Mencarini added.
Angel Garcia, assistant director of residence life for The Station at Mill Point and assistant director of the Multicultural Center, was also impressed with the food selection and atmosphere, which he said will likely attract a lot of students.
“The newness of the place strikes you right away,” he said. “I think it’s a good change of pace; it’s completely different than any other dining hall on campus.”
As they look ahead, Varghese said one of the challenges will be to bring authentic foods from around the world—and teach the staff accordingly—while finding a balance between variety of flavors and people’s taste.
“The anticipation is what causes the most anxiety,” Gazda said. “We only can get better. There is no such a thing as complacency at Elon.”