In Search of Crunchy Broccoli

Food Patrol

A la carte: from salads to salsa to stir-fry, from fast-food burgers to fresh-fruit smoothies, campus eateries serve up a smorgasbord

Are today's catered-to students a spoiled generation of eaters? Or is it true instead that, as a French chef would never say, the more tuna noodle casserole changes, the more tuna noodle casserole remains the same? College food. It's a lot like high-school algebra--be enjoyed.

In her book Bright College Years, Anne Matthews observes that in the years around 1800, Harvard students "endured weevily bread the texture of wet wool, rancid meat, and sour college cider fortified with raw whiskey. When moldy butter joined the menu, they rioted for days, ignoring the elderly alumni (John Adams included) who wanted them flogged. At 1840s Princeton, hungry boys speared suppertime chops to the underside of the dinner table for breakfast retrieval." By the 1940s and 1950s, food offerings had improved--if that's the right term--to "breaded veal, shepherd's pie, or tuna noodle casserole slopped onto thick china plates, the only garnish cold canned peas and white bread lumpy with margarine, the only beverages milk and water."

Then came the Sixties and revolutions of all varieties--as tastefully documented in the Duke Dining Services' website, which treats university dining as "a story of population growth and technological progress.É Now that potatoes could be purchased pre-peeled, pre-cut, and frozen, and dishes could be washed by machines, universities' kitchens began to be able to offer students greater variety and flexibility than ever before." In late 1967, Duke's student government passed a resolution demanding that campus eateries carry junk-food favorites. The student-body president was authorized to negotiate with university officials "to obtain by any means necessary that epitome of student-activist concern, ice-cream cones and french fries."

With the Seventies came "new technology, such as tunnel ovens with conveyer belts for making pizzas"--along with computerized card systems, meaning that all those pizzas could be consumed through declining-balance accounts rather than contract board plans. And that gave rise to the era of consumer choice. Students can have it their way; they now choose "what they will eat, when they will eat, and how much they will eat."

Having accumulated all this food for thought, I became hungry for some raw, or well-cooked, material. As a mid-Seventies undergraduate, I had no acquaintance with pizza-spewing conveyer belts, though perhaps I had a modest acquaintance with tuna noodle casserole. The student handbook from my freshman year explained that the faithful following of "regulations" would make the main dining room "an attractive, comfortable, and pleasant eating area." "As the lines proceed," we were told, "students should secure trays for such menu items as they may select while moving through the lines." Curiously, there was no reference to the food. In fact, eating seemed to have all the spontaneity and joy of the science requirement, which, for me, also didn't go down very well.


World-class critics: restaurateurs Radzwiller, left, and Wein took on campus cuisine
Photo: Chris Hildreth

Today, casual eating patterns have made an impact on campus. They've even made an impact, of sorts, on the curriculum. English professor Thomas J. Ferraro includes in his course syllabus "a caution for Duke, Inc., confused, at the millennium, in the era of privatization." He advises his students: "Please do not bring food into the classroom unless it is for everyone. The issue here is not simply about courtesy, which most of us regard (wrongly) as a fussy holdover from Queen Victoria. At immediate stake is the sensorium--the aroma of food is able to incorporate only when the table is open. At larger risk is what Italians call amicizia: To break bread together is to bond blood, while to withhold bread from others is to deny relation." Eating has long served up useful lessons in language, etiquette, and corporate behavior.

In or out of the sensorium, are today's catered-to students a spoiled generation of eaters? Or perhaps the more tuna noodle casserole changes, the more tuna noodle casserole remains the same, as a French chef would never say. An investigation was in order. And so I assembled a culinary dream team: the magazine's Clay Felker Fellow, Scott Meisler, a Duke dining-savvy senior whose taste buds had been stimulated by a semester's stint in Spain; and two local alumni of note, Maggie Radzwiller '77 and Gary Wein '71.

Radzwiller and Wein are co-owners of Durham's Brightleaf 905, named by Esquire as one of the nation's "best new restaurants of 1999." Wein has been a food force in the local catering scene for years, and as the December Esquire put it, "What Maggie Radzwiller doesn't know about running a restaurant isn't worth knowing. Her lineage includes stints at Union Square CafŽ and the Rainbow Room in New York City and Coco Pazzo in Chicago, and she's poured all her considerable energies into proving that DurhamÉcan soon be as good a restaurant town as any in the South, maybe even Charleston."

We set out on a Thursday evening during a balmy stretch in February. Hours before, I had consumed a painfully light lunch--a cup of nonfat yogurt with a feel-good label that says something about "a healthy planet." So I'm ready for some healthy eating. I'm ready, that is, after I "Flex it," in the campus vernacular. That means I have to install a declining-balance flexible-spending account on my Duke identification card to absorb all these food purchases. In the words of the Flex brochure, "Whatever your campus needs may be, the Flex Account can help you fulfill them." I consider all my unmet needs, and also the brochure's somewhat ominous advisory that "Flex is accepted by Parking Services."

As we drive over to West Campus, Maggie says she's curious to see how Duke dining operations have changed. Scott tells us of his job at an upscale Italian restaurant in his hometown of Boca Raton, Florida. Maggie, who worked in the dining halls for two years as a student, observes that in restaurant settings, people are at their most insistent. Both agree that experience in the food business would be good for everyone.

Walking to the Great Hall, we pass students carrying styrofoam food containers. Apparently they've ordered take-out from the Oak Room, and I wonder about the irony of taking out food from Duke's only wait-service restaurant. At the Great Hall, we pass into its food-court core, with a salad bar, grill works, hot-entrees station, and Mongolian wok. After waiting a while for my chicken-based wok creation, I join my already-seated compatriots. "Do you want my first comment?" asks Maggie, who had already noted that a food preparer couldn't describe the ingredients of a calzone offering. "Fifty percent of what's in there is frozen or is out of a can. The salad bar, the veggies--there's very little that's fresh in there. You can tell just by looking at it; you don't even have to eat it." Giving her pepperoni pizza a forlorn look, she adds, "Somebody here did not make this pizza."

Gary is sampling corn chowder, prime rib with couscous, and a spicy chicken wrap. He says he remembers the Duke fare as "being a little bit more Southern--fried chicken, Swiss steak. The food was much heavier--old-timey cooking." He revels for a bit in the college memories of weekly clam chowder, with old-timey qualities that presumably surpassed this evening's corn chowder.

"They were trying to make fewer people happy then," Maggie says. Twenty-three years ago, she was helping prepare stir-fry meals on East Campus, chopping fresh vegetables and cooking rice. That personal history suggests to her that institutional food can be wholesome food. "Diversity is now considered to be the most important goal, rather than the quality of the ingredients," responds Gary. "Diversity is a factor you judge a restaurant by."

Maggie: "The question is, what do students want? Do they want better and more flavorful food, or is variety more important?"

Gary: "Diversity appeals to more people. I see that in the catering business. There are a lot more vegetarians out there who make their presence known. People feel they have the right to be taken care of."



Food for thought: The dining "experience" in a Dukecard world
Photos by Les Todd


Maggie: "That's how kids end up anorexic; they eat stuff that's not good for them. We've got to inspire early habits. We teach them like adults. Why don't we feed them like adults? We're perpetuating a seventh- and eighth-grade diet. I don't think that's what it's all about." She says it's better to serve up two or three fresh vegetables than "offering twelve vegetables out of a can."

Gary: "And that way you'd get a lot more complaints. It's as much psychological as anything. Diversity is the theme not just here but everywhere; I read about it in food magazines. It's perceived value. We've been desensitized into thinking that choice is everything. That's the nature of fast food."

Maggie observes that students around us are leaving a lot on their plates. What's happened to their money consciousness? "It's the psychology of food points," Scott says. "Students don't think of it as money." "These people know what they're doing," says Gary, presumably referring not to the food-wasting students but to the food managers.

"It's very hard to do many things well," notes Maggie, as we leave the Great Hall's food melange. Next door is the slightly more restrained Cambridge Inn, where we sample Chick-fil-A sandwiches (a franchise operation) and Cosmic Cantina burritos (owned by Cosmos Lyles B.S.E. '96, who has a contract with dining services to provide burritos daily from his restaurant just off-campus, which is hugely popular with students). Maggie retrieves a wrapped chicken burrito. The label advertises it as boneless, skinless, free-range chicken breast. Maggie is impressed by the fat-free rice, but she's troubled that the label carries no printed date. "I don't know how many times it's been reheated. Anything cooked to order is going to taste better."

Chick-fil-A advertises itself with the sign, "We didn't invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich." It's hard to figure out the validity --or the significance--of that chicken claim. Collectively, we go for the smallest possible package of chicken nuggets. Gary calls them "nasty nuggets." They go largely uneaten.

Perhaps to deflect attention from the looming nuggets, Gary turns the conversation to student tastes. For students, "after all, it's just a meal," he says. "Kids don't have as much exposure to good eating as older people. Eating is just necessary, like sleep; it's not basic to their quality of life." Scott says students will spend real money on a good meal off-campus, but that it's considered a pretty extraordinary undertaking.

Maggie isn't a fan of the Cambridge Inn atmosphere. "Why is there a TV on here?" she asks. "If they're using it as wallpaper, as background, it's too bad. This is the only opportunity these kids have to get together during the day."

In search of a change of atmosphere, we walk the few steps to Han's, a Chinese eatery. Han's earns immediate validation: We spot Julian Harris, Duke's latest Rhodes Scholar, loading up on shrimp stir-fry with Chinese noodles. Then we see Jeremy Huff, the student government's vice president for community interaction; he's interacting with a multiple-course Chinese meal. Huff is a newly-named Luce Scholar, an honor that will send him to Asia next year. Does eating Chinese make you smarter? In celebration of the Chinese New Year, the cashier gives me a small red envelope decorated with a gold dragon. When I open it later on, a genuine 1999 U.S. penny falls out.

We pack our shared plate with tofu, rice noodles, broccoli, and fried dumpling. "Well, this looks interesting," says a suddenly wary Gary. But Maggie turns into a food enthusiast. "This is fresh broccoli. It crunches. Look," she says, waving the broccoli precariously on her fork. "It doesn't fly off the fork at Gary. This is the healthiest thing we've seen." Chinese, she says in an admiring aside, "is a very labor-intensive method of cooking."

"I don't think it's brilliant, but it's better," Maggie concludes. "This could be a vegetarian's delight." She says the food is "arranged very nicely on the plate" by the cafeteria-line workers. "I'd eat here," declares Gary.

In this conversation-friendly environment, Maggie recalls her own routine in the dining halls--mornings that sometimes started at 4:30, assignments that ranged from checking student cards to preparing meals. "All of that led to my being in the restaurant business," she says. Even before attending Duke, she waited tables and washed dishes in restaurants in her hometown of Morris Plains, New Jersey. Her mother wrote for Gourmet magazine and started her own magazine, Farm and Garden, which Maggie describes as "an early Martha Stewart Living." At age two, she was the cover subject, posed out in the herb garden. Every year, her family would play host for a foreign-exchange student. "I would never describe my hometown as cosmopolitan; we didn't get our first traffic light until I was twenty years old. But even as a first-grader, I had a Japanese student living with me, and I felt I saw what people were eating everywhere in the world." Her father died when she was young, and the food work was a way to pay her college bills.

We leave the West Union Building--through a narrow exit that Maggie considers unsafe--for the Bryan Center. Gary talks about his own path to food. As a student, he liked to entertain and, in an interesting role reversal, often cooked for professors. Once he cooked dinner for then-president Terry Sanford. Public policy professor Joel Fleishman, a close Sanford colleague, suggested to Gary that he should stay in the area and open a catering business. Gary dismissed that idea and went off to graduate school in psychology. After a frustrating month and a half at Princeton, he took up Fleishman's suggestion. Since then, he's become what Maggie describes as the culinary "backbone of what's happened in this town," a food experimenter "who is never looking to do what anyone else has done."


We linger briefly at the Bryan Center's newest food attraction--a McDonald's franchise. That very day, The Chronicle had reported that McDonald's saw a 104 percent increase in customers and a 123 percent increase in dollar sales over Burger King's opening month (now supplanted by this McDonald's, Burger King had made its Bryan Center debut in the fall of 1993). Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A sales were reportedly down. We weren't sure whether to celebrate or lament those trends.

"I like my quarter-pounders now and again," Maggie admits, revealing a passion for charcoal-grilled burgers with fries. Would Esquire be able to forgive her? Scott points out the "Duke-ish" touches to this particular McDonald's--including a floor, complete with center-court "D," that was cut out of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Maggie labels the mixed McDonald's-and-Duke dŽcor "kind of convoluted," but says "they don't need dŽcor to get people into the door. I'm sure it's profitable." Scott remarks on the lunchtime pattern that draws students into McDonald's like so many squeezed-in french fries. "McDonald's is the most heavily advertised franchise in the world," Gary says. "Loyalty is already established." "This is how it all begins," says Maggie, eyeing a line of student consumers. "Eating fast food in college." Well, it doesn't quite start there, she adds. "We no longer have kids who sit down and eat a family meal."

"That's one of the cardinal problems," says Gary.

Maggie: "So why should a university perpetuate that behavior?"

Gary: "A university is not in the business of changing behavior. A university is in the business of giving you options."


Before Ted Minah's arrival at Duke, students were organizing disruptive food fights to protest the low level of service. "Prior to the war," he recalled in a published interview, "I was told there had been riots at Duke because of the food. My job was to change the food program completely on both campuses."

Minah inherited a program in disarray. But in his twenty-eight years as director of Duke Dining Halls (1946-1974), he tried to transform Duke's lagging food service operation from its embarrassing post-war state to that of a cutting-edge industry leader.

That he did. Minah established cafeterias and a cash-based meal system on West Campus, and transformed the East Campus system from waited tables to cafeteria-style dining, thus offering a freedom of choice rarely seen in the university dining halls of the day. Minah's plan to issue paper meal tickets on a monthly basis (billed to the students' parents) is the forerunner of the current card-based, declining-balance food account.

He also revolutionized the way in which employees were hired and trained. He brought in a consultant from the University of Tennessee to teach classes for the employees. The best were chosen in part from their performance on an exam. The Oak Room, which today bears his name, was created from space formerly used to house student G.I.'s and was intended to serve not just as a high-quality dining facility, but also as a source of student employment opportunities.

Minah's role, however, was never strictly limited to food service. One of his legacies was the hiring of "Big" Bill Jones as special functions manager. Jones, who had worked with Minah at Brown University, became one of the most popular and well-respected employees on campus. Students who had no financial need for employment would apply for a job with dining services just to work with him.

Jones was African American, and his hiring certainly raised some eyebrows, especially when he sat as the only non-white staff member at meetings. But Minah, a Unitarian from New England, refused to let the explicit if tacit segregation of the South interfere with his operation. University Archivist William E. King '61, A.M. '63, Ph.D. '70 says that Minah even issued an internal directive to his employees that they feed customers of any color, because "anyone was welcome in his dining halls."

His reign also saw the rise of student and employee activism. When dining service employees went on strike in support of unionization in 1968, Minah, though he supported their cause, enlisted the help of 250 student volunteers to keep the dining halls open. During the lettuce boycott of 1972, he put aside his concerns about student health and reluctantly yielded to student protests, agreeing to abide by the United Farm Workers request for a boycott of all non-UFW lettuce.

As a consultant to more than a hundred colleges and universities, and as founder and president of the National Association of College and University Food Services, Minah exerted an enormous influence on the way Duke and universities nationwide manage dining operations. He proved himself an amiable, savvy, and adaptable leader, one who, even seven years after retirement, foresaw the trends that would engulf the dining system he had helped to create. "We're coming to the end of this period. Board systems will lose their appeal; students will become more independent again and will want to spend their money where they like."

As we decide against indulging in the familiar sensation of McDonald's fare, Gary comments, "That's the difference between Duke and Harvard. Duke has McDonald's and a winning basketball team." Scott, who sampled Harvard as a summer student, says the quality of Harvard food is hit-or-miss. His later research reveals that there are five McDonald's within two miles of Harvard.

Just beyond McDonald's is the Armadillo Grill, a Tex-Mex eatery that opened this past fall. We like the Armadillo's "self-order form," with its iconic cactus, and we order pretty widely--chicken chalupa, beef chalupa, and a cheese enchilada plate. Gary fixates for a few minutes on the tortilla-making machine. He calls it "a wonderful machine." "This is better than watching TV for him," says Maggie. "This is unfortunately our idea of a good time--watching this machine."

Our group is intrigued by the Armadillo environment. The TVs run muted--though Scott finds himself distracted by the sports scores. The walls are done in purple with a few other vibrant colors, some vaguely Southwestern paintings are mounted here and there, and the seating is on different levels, making this an in-depth experience in dining. Bob Marley is playing in the background, and "kids will like to listen and older people will not be offended," as Maggie puts it.

"This is fresh, this is good," says Gary, comparing it favorably to what he calls the "prehistoric" look of the Great Hall. "If I were a student here, this is where I would be," Maggie says. "This is a civilized experience for the fast-food and TV generation, even as it's inherently catering to that." Reluctantly coming around to Gary's view, she says universities probably can't do much in teaching culinary values.

Sampling some enchilada, Gary comes to a pleasing verdict: "As Mexican food goes, it's good." Maggie pronounces her beef chalupa more flavorful than the evening's earlier, undated burrito. "I could survive eating here and at Han's, as long as I could find fresh fruit."

In the Armadillo's intermediate-level seating tier, Maggie and Gary talk about the nurturing of Brightleaf 905. In her first phase beyond graduation, Maggie was a newspaper photographer and a graphics designer. But she was always cooking, waiting tables, or bartending on the side. She spent a stint as a chef. In Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, she worked in restaurant management, getting places built, hiring and training staff, organizing finances, testing recipes, and running the operations until the staffs were set to take over.

After a stint in California, Maggie founded Pop's, an Italian restaurant in Durham; after a couple of Durham years, she went back to California to manage eight restaurants. On a visit, Gary asked if she was ready for a Durham return. She was, in fact, homesick. Later Gary told her that Fowler's, a large retailer of wines and fine foods, was moving out of its space in Brightleaf Square, a renovated tobacco warehouse. That opportunity provided the needed spark, and the restaurant opened in late February 1998.

"I love Durham," Maggie says. "If you know what you're doing, this is the easiest place to have success; you can be a star in this town if you know what you're doing." She placed a lot of emphasis on atmosphere; and, she points out, Brightleaf 905's quiet noise level is unusual among local restaurants. She fashioned the dining room with "enormous space between tables, great lighting, and food from around the world that changes every month." This is not "fusion" food, which she considers "sloppy and undisciplined," but "world food," she explains, a combining of ingredients from a region within a single dish. "We're not out to reinvent Indian food, we're out to represent Indian food."

"We want our customers to be demanding," she says. "We do our best with customers who demand more from us." The rotating menu means a management challenge in ordering just the right quantity of ingredients before a new food theme kicks in. But having steeped herself in managing almost nothing but Italian restaurants while in California, she "didn't want to look at another bowl of pasta." So she brought a simple test to Brightleaf 905: "I wanted to be able to eat in the restaurant."

The conversation drifts to New Orleans. Gary is drawn to the cuisine scene there; he says "they prepare everything from scratch, they believe in having a good time over a meal, and they talk about food all the time. A great experience is just as important as the food." Scott mentions having been ejected from Antoine's in New Orleans for not wearing a jacket. Maggie proceeds to talk about Duke students calling to make Brightleaf 905 reservations and then showing up late or not showing up at all. She rides the theme of student carelessness for a while. Then we move on to finish the Bryan Center exploration, with the Alpine Atrium.

An invitingly airy space, the Atrium wins plaudits for the student-friendly atmosphere. Maggie, though, is amazed that the sprinkling of students there can really get their studying done. "The bright lights, the music, the noise of the blender--it would all make me crazy." Perhaps because it makes some students crazy, the prominent computer station, labeled "Cafemail," isn't busy. Even if they're not plugged into their e-mail accounts, students are plugged into their futures with table tents that advertise "Career Center Happenings."

We're greeted by an exuberant food worker, Diana Connor, who was celebrated as Duke's person of the year in The Chronicle's monthly magazine supplement. She touts this as "a great place to relax and communicate--that's the whole Duke community." I decide to relax with a fruit scone; the others, after contemplating the plastic-wrapped sandwiches, the salads, and the smoothies bar, share a caramel pecan bun. Gary doesn't delight in the dessert: "They don't know how to make sticky buns in the South." This concoction is baked with glazing added later, he observes, rather than all the flavor being baked into it. The fruit scone is quite crumbly. But as any Anglophile knows, Americans just don't reckon well with the idea of the scone, which should resemble something organic rather than something pastry-like.

As we pick out our selections, Gary muses about the convenience that students now enjoy. The Alpine Atrium is open until midnight; Chinese-hungry students can find Han's beckoning until nine o'clock. That's a change from the student days of yore. "If I got hungry at night, well, good luck. I had to find a car or go to the vending machines." Maggie finds an unsettling change in the prevalence of disposable utensils. From the evening's encounter at the Great Hall, she had been carrying around her original set of knife and fork. But a campus setting can be uncivil when it comes to silverware theft, she acknowledges.

What better time to experience the civil and subdued Duke than on a Sunday morning? A few days later, we reassemble as a somewhat smaller Sunday team, minus Gary and with a time-wary Maggie, who has to meet an oven repairman at Brightleaf 905. We return to the Cambridge Inn, this time for Alpine Bagels & Brews. I recognize Kalman Bland, a religion professor, who walks out with bagel bag and briefcase--armed, I suppose, for a busy Sunday in the office. The loud level of the music "impedes the conversation," Maggie says. I observe the clever self-advertisements: "Bagels so fresh they should be slapped"; and "We have a lot more fun than most kids our age," which, I guess, refers to the bagel-makers rather than the student patrons. "I can smell the onion bagels," says Maggie as we walk in.

After that olfactory encounter, Maggie and I share an onion bagel with lox and cream cheese. I eat half of it with satisfaction, and I'm secretly sorry that she's intent on consuming her half. Her latte is a bit too thin; she guesses it's made with two-percent milk. But it's thumbs-up for my fresh-squeezed orange juice. Scott declares this "my favorite place here," with particular praise for the grilled chicken Caesar salad. He says that weekdays between classes, Alpine is jammed with students. Maggie says the area "visually is presented well," and that the servers are "very pleasant."

The owners of Alpine, a campus franchise operation, seem fervently customer-centered. A couple of days before, The Chronicle had published a letter from a sophomore complaining about his Alpine tuna-salad sandwich and a Dutch chocolate yogurt that "tasted more like chilled lard with a dash of vinegar." "Perhaps Alpine could do something about suppurating food," he advised. Alpine, in its published response, announced a special offering named for the offended undergraduate. "With any tuna sandwich, patrons will receive a large Dutch chocolate yogurt, absolutely free. If the Duke community finds this food to be putrid, I will permanently 'suppurate' (kudos on that word; I bet you aced the verbal section of your SATs, didn't you?) those items from the menu."

Even on her Alpine high, Maggie worries that students who exist on bagel sandwiches, to say nothing of pizza- and sandwich-delivery services, will be cheated nutritionally. "You can survive on that, but it's not what nutrition is all about."

Just before noon, our food tour lands us on East Campus, now a campus for freshmen and the site of the strict board plan that remains at Duke. Maggie doesn't recognize the East Campus Union where she once worked; it now houses The Marketplace, with its multiplicity of serving areas. As it turns out, our visit is coinciding with a pre-Valentine's Day food celebration. "It's like a whole other planet over here," she says, as we navigate among the breads and rolls, cold cereals, yogurt bar, fresh fruit, salad bar, strawberry shortcake, and still-sleepy freshmen, at least one of whom appears to be dressed in pajamas. "Everything looks like it was just made, people are moving faster, and even the surfaces are brighter and shinier. You can squeeze your own juice. What can be fresher?"

She stands admiringly in front of one of the food stations, noting that the assemblage of different-colored grains and vegetables is a commendable "attempt to make things look pleasing." She was tempted to issue some instructions to the sliced-roast carver, whose slicing was dicey; the meat seems to be shredding, but still "it's tasty," in her view.

Maggie and I notice that Scott, for the first time in these food forays, is loading up his tray. "That's the best sign we've seen," she says.

At this hour on a Sunday, it's easy to find a table; it has an "Eat for Health" table tent with the theme of minerals. "My poached eggs are perfectly cooked," declares Maggie. "And actually they're very hard to make." The posted menu describes her selection as "steak benedict with spicy Montreal hollandaise cranberry and sage." Her scrambled eggs came out of "a four-gallon container," she speculates. But she's quick to add that scrambled-eggs production is notoriously labor-intensive. Scott and I both greedily finish off our banana pancakes. Scott resists eating his biscuit; Maggie takes it on, and finds the texture agreeable.

Maggie heads back to her restaurant and the repairman. I ask her how many hours a week she puts into the business. "I keep it at eighty hours," she answers. While that hardly impresses me as a restrained commitment, she says "getting feedback at a constant rate allows you to feel good about what you're doing. If you're a professor, how many times will students stop you and say, you really had an impact on me?"

Scott goes off to read some Yeats, who was not among the more food-obsessed Irish literati. I realize that I have to ponder something of only casual interest to students: What's for dinner? Of course, I can always Flex it on campus and find, I now know, some fresh broccoli.

Jim Wulforst has a responsibility that keeps him, and his associates, not just by the food warmer but in the hot seat. As I start an Oak Room lunch with Wulforst, Duke's dining services director, I recognize our student waiter, whom I teach in a seminar on magazine journalism. The student tries to explain his class absence the previous day. Perhaps in an even more awkward moment, he returns to apologize for being temporarily out of french fries.

Over our chicken sandwiches (Southwestern for him, generic for me), Wulforst sounds like a salesman. That he is--and a very good one, it seems. He talks about providing "exciting, interesting campus venues," "good service," and "reasonable prices" for the Duke community. And he wants the community to "feel good about the experience" of campus eating, which means that "the most important value" to him is "the need to treat everyone as a customer." Otherwise, with Duke's flexible meal plans, students and others will take their dining business off-campus.

Wulforst, who gets ideas from a committee of students and who eats at every one of his campus establishments at least once a week, is also an entrepreneur. Part of the change he's brought to dining services has been greater privatization. As he puts it, "If there are guys out there doing the job better than we perhaps could, why should we try to duplicate what somebody is already successful at doing?" So, for example, he's imported Alpine's "wildly successful" concept to Duke--bagels, salads, and sandwiches--from Vanderbilt; introduced "authentic" Chinese food through Han's, which is owned by a local family; brought the national brand Chick-fil-A to the Cambridge Inn; and turned over the food service for the sprawling Levine Science Research Center to George's Garage, a "gourmet" eating spot off-campus. "People in the retail business survive through a spirit of entrepreneurship," he says.

Another of Wulforst's innovations is expansion of Duke's so-called merchants-on-points plan. Through the plan, students can apply their flexible "food points" to pay for campus deliveries of sandwiches, pizza, and other items. About a dozen merchants take part. Wulforst says deliveries are restricted to seven o'clock at night or later; he's not, then, competing with his own campus eateries. He says Duke's peak- use period for electricity comes around one o'clock in the morning--"and I don't want to be in the food service at that particular time."

He seems to have found a winning formula. He came to Duke just over three years ago. During that period, dining services has grown in revenues from $12 million to $20 million annually.

Wulforst had spent eight years with TimeWarner in New York City. He oversaw the contractors who ran eight food venues, from the executive dining room to the employee cafeteria. Before that, he headed the nutrition department for St. Vincent's Hospital in New York (whose 900 patients didn't particularly want to be eating there or having anything to do with a hospital stay, he notes). He also had a stint managing his own restaurants. At James Madison University in Virginia, he earned a degree in health science. He supported himself in college as a food-services worker. "I vividly remember a kitchen full of steam kettles. It wasn't my mother's cooking, that's for sure."

A lot of today's mothers and fathers would hope to see healthy dining habits among college students. Wulforst says, "Part of the growing process should be to learn to eat right. But I don't think many kids come here thinking about eating healthy. That's only a small minority. When the son or daughter is home from college, what do they want to eat? Probably fast food. And when students tell us they want healthy alternatives, what do you think happens to the alternatives? I can tell you that the broccoli just sits there; that's not what they're loading up on. But if we don't have the french fries, you can bet that students will be screaming about it."

Wulforst is sensitive to the drawbacks of the eat-on-the-run college culture; he says he tries to fight it in small ways, like removing TV sets from some locations. But he suggests it's a losing battle--an ironic admission, he observes, since his moving to Duke was prompted by a yearning to escape a frenzied style of living. Freshmen complain about a strict board

plan that embraces breakfast--a meal that many of them avoid, despite its obvious nutritional and community-building significance.

"I'd love to spend hours in the Great Hall soliciting ideas from students. But it's hard to do that when somebody wants to be up and out in twenty minutes. Today's student is likely to grab a Chick-fil-A sandwich and a burrito for lunch, and he'll probably finish eating the burrito as he's waiting at the West Campus bus stop. It's not good, but it's the culture. Students simply aren't looking for social dining." During our lunch at the Oak Room, there are few students, he notes.

As he projects the future of campus food, Wulforst talks about concepts like cooking with fresher ingredients and with greater flair. Among the trends he perceives is what he calls "getting students into the kitchen"--having them pick out the raw material for their meal and then observe the cooking.

Of course, having what they want and having it prepared their way may not dissuade students from a french-fries fixation.


--Robert J. Bliwise

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