On any given week night, the Sharpe Refectory hosts a sizable crowd at peak traffic time, around 6:15 to 6:45 p.m. But two or three evenings a semester, the Ratty’s dinnertime lines extend far beyond the tables offering baskets of fruit, and the soup and omelet stations are transformed into depots for exotic dishes for the special food nights hosted by Brown Dining Services.
Setting the table
Last semester Brown Dining Services presented an Asian heritage night, a Cape Verdean workers appreciation dinner, a local food night and a soul food night. Past academic years have also featured a Halloween “Fright Night.”
These special food nights are inspired by staff “based on current trends or ideas we get from our colleagues at other schools,” wrote Gina Guiducci, Brown Dining Services dietician, in an email to The Herald. The result is the periodic transformation of the Ratty and Verney-Woolley Dining Hall into theaters for gastronomic celebrations of cultural heritage or ecological awareness through spiced up menus, guest chefs and themed decorations.
Each event is unique and “can take several months to plan,” wrote Executive Chef John O’Shea in an email to The Herald. The preparation includes “researching recipes that can be produced in large quantities without compromising quality, repeated recipe testing and fine-tuning until we achieve the quality we’re looking for,” he wrote.
While the events are “a lot of work,” O’Shea wrote that “the payoff is great — for our customers and for the staff.” The Dining Services staff “get a lot of satisfaction from a successful event,” he wrote.
Such events involve a “team approach,” Guiducci wrote. She and O’Shea work together on each event’s menu and “try to involve (students) a lot, especially around how to maintain authenticity” in terms of the techniques used to cook each dish, she wrote. “Overall, students play a very big part in determining what the final menu will look like,” Guiducci wrote.
Mixing it up
The special food nights also involve collaboration with student groups. Going beyond the egg rolls and fried rice that are occasionally offered for dinner, Brown’s Asian American Heritage Series co-sponsored the Asian heritage night, which featured stir-fry stations with dishes including vegan chana masala, beef and broccoli Szechuan and pineapple fried rice.
The University’s Black Heritage Series Program sponsored a soul food night and the Cape Verdean workers appreciation dinner this year.
Black Heritage Series programmers Colin Blake ’15 and Alter Jackson ’15 met with O’Shea and Guiducci to help plan a menu for soul food night that included fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread, shrimp gumbo and peach cobbler.
Jackson also assisted in planning the decorations and the rhythm and blues and soul music featured during the occasion. The soul food night has “been a tradition every year for quite a few years now,” Jackson said, and the Dining Services staff “seemed really excited about planning it.” At this year’s soul food night on Feb. 27, the Ratty hosted double the number of diners it typically draws, feeding 2,200 students in total.
Sophia Dalce ’15, another programmer for the Black Heritage Series called the event one of the group’s “signature” nights. “It usually takes place at the culmination of Black History Month,” Dalce wrote in an email to The Herald. “The bananas foster, southern fried chicken and mac and cheese were all deemed as favorites.”
Taking a bite
Though students and staff alike display notable effort and enthusiasm for these meals, opinions on the authenticity of the food served and the resulting influx of Ratty and V-Dub diners vary among the student body.
Tiffany Chang ’16 went the Asian, Cape Verdean and local food nights and said she “really enjoyed all three of them.”
“I liked that you could see the chefs making the food,” she said, adding that the evenings “felt special.”
Alexa Van Hattum ’16, who went to the soul food night and the Asian food night, said the lines for both events were “absurd” and said she regretted not coming earlier to beat the traffic.
“The dessert was the best part both nights,” she said.
Klara Zimmerman ’15, who has been to two specialty nights, called the sustainable food night “fantastic,” adding that the Ratty should strive to get more of its food locally.
“I had a coffee milk pop, and it made my day,” she said.
The Ratty will offer two more special meals this semester. As a part of the Visiting Chef series, the Ratty will host Mai Pham, chef and owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., April 11. Pham is an expert on Southeast Asian cuisine, and the meal will feature several of her recipes.
Dining Services will also host an Earth Day event April 22 to cap off the academic year’s special food nights.
– Additional reporting by Katherine Lamb