This is dining hall food?

Blackened tuna, pastries, and cooked-to-order entrees are now dining hall fare

by Christian Moody

If variety is the spice of life, then the food in Virginia Tech dining halls has gotten spicier in the past few years. Where once three dining halls--Owens, Shultz, and Dietrick--served up the same three entree options per meal, each now gives diners six or more entree choices, plus options accommodating special diets.

The old Owens that replaced the military mess hall in 1937 has been transformed into a modern food court offering everything from cheese steaks to pastries and 16 varieties of yogurt smoothies. In Owen's Hokie Grill, national chains Pizza Hut and Chick-fil-A have licensed their names, products, and cooking methods to Tech operators.

Tech's second major food court, the West End Market, opened early in 1999 as the university's crowning achievement in dining hall innovation. The West End Market, located in an extension of Cochrane Hall, has seven dining venues, each with its own separate kitchen island. Food is prepared as diners watch, conveying a sense of freshness.

The National Association of College and University Food Services awarded the West End Market the grand prize for a university specialty restaurant. The award is the culmination of Tech's campaign to have the top food service in the country.

Even Dietrick and Shultz cafeterias have changed to meet the demands of students, says Rick Johnson, director of culinary services in Residential and Dining Programs (RDP). Express lines in both dining halls allow students and others to pick up meals to go. The express lines operate on extended hours to accommodate those who must attend classes during meal times.

The pastries sold in Dietrick's gourmet coffee shop, Deet's Place, are perhaps the best symbols of the changes made in Tech's dining services. The delicacies are created by a classically trained German chef, Nikolaus Brummer, one of nine chefs on RDP's staff. At least one chef oversees food preparation at each dining hall. Before 1990, Tech did not have a chef on staff. Now the chefs occasionally set up cooking apparatus in the dining halls and demonstrate how to make truffles, homemade pasta, bread, and other specialty foods. Students are invited to participate in the process.

Executive Chef Keith Rasmussen and Chef Chris Martin oversee the cooking in the West End Market. Tech's newest dining facility features wood ovens for pizza and stromboli and six other kitchens offering everything from steaks cooked-to-order to pastries and salads.

Executive Chef Jud Flynn has won national awards, including a gold medal in October from the North American Food Equipment Manufacturers' Association competition--one of the most prestigious national competitions. Flynn was the highest scoring chef at the event, which included chefs from restaurants, country clubs, and businesses. The days of mystery meat are gone.

Gone, too, are the days when the food service seemed a reason for students to move off campus as soon as possible. Now the admissions staff can brag to prospective students about the quality of campus chow. Mildred Johnson, assistant director of undergraduate admissions, could be a little biased when she talks to prospective students about Tech's dining halls, but she knows well what culinary services has to offer; she is married to Rick Johnson. "I tell Rick, 'I'll bring them in to campus and you feed them,'" she says.

Mildred Johnson says that students on special diets-- vegetarian, for instance--expect a school the size of Tech to dismiss specialized needs. "Most are amazed that we pay any attention to the needs of a vegan," she says. "Students are interested to know they can meet with a dietician."

Vegetarians and vegans--individuals who eat no animal products such as meat, eggs, or dairy--are not the only people on special diets catered to by Culinary Services; a room in Dietrick called the Training Edge serves high protein, high carbohydrate meals to athletes in training. Tech's scholarship athletes are encouraged to eat at least one meal a day at the Training Edge, but the facility is also open to others who want to enhance their athletic performance.

The Training Edge and meatless serving lines were added because students asked for them. "We look at students as customers, and we are listening to our customers," Rick Johnson says. The first changes in dining services came when students were allowed to purchase meal plans with less than 19 meals per week. Most students felt they were losing money paying for more meals they than actually ate on campus. A plan adopted 15 years ago allows them to pay less for fewer meals.

The present meal plan costs $970 each semester. Although food court purchases are based on cash, students who buy meal plans can make purchases with cash credited to their Hokie Passports, a Tech ID that serves as a campus debit card. Their dining dollars go farther in the traditional cafeterias than in the food courts where items are sold a la carte. The dining halls are also open to the public.

The Hokie Grill in Owens Dining Hall has a Pizza Hut Express, a Chick-Fil-A, a salad bar, and other fast fare for students.

This system is called the flex plan, instituted by RDP in 1996. Now more than 6,700 of the 8,700 on-campus students use that plan. What's more, 2,723 off-campus students now purchase a meal plan, up from only a few hundred 10 years ago.

Johnson says student satisfaction with campus fare is growing, although the old jokes about dorm food will probably never be completely retired. The evidence is in the numbers. The dining halls are supported completely by the meal plans and food sales. No state money is used in food services, and any profit goes back into the program. Surplus funds paid for the West End Market and other improvements throughout the dining halls, Johnson says.

"I'm happy with the food here, especially when I talk to my friends at other schools," says first-year student Mary Kathryn Walsh (business '03). "Overall, I think when people are well-fed they're happy." Jordan Huchins (landscape architecture '03) sees the quality of food as a reason to consider staying on-campus. "It's good and saves the hassle of cooking. I have no complaints," he says.

These words, coming from undergraduate students, sound like sweet music to Johnson.

Virginia Tech Culinary Services now employs nine chefs in the four dining halls and bake shop. They are (left to right) Jud Flynn, Nikolaus Brummer, Kevin Strong, Joe Farrington, Keith Rasmussen, Anthony Dowdy, Chris Martin, David Haff, and Scott Kenaston.

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