Students discover the joys of cooking

Author: Meghan Thomassen '14

Lunches at Notre Dame’s two dining halls, where most of us eat twice a day, seven days a week, can turn monotonous about eight weeks into the semester, but we rejoice at the convenience of a hot and nutritious meal always at the ready. Still, when the most popular dishes in the dining hall include chicken strips, chargrilled chicken and General Tso’s, it’s no wonder we feel like we’ve fallen into a culinary rut. And when we hit the point where we can’t possibly look at another fillet of unidentifiable fish, it’s time to get creative.

Thankfully, the dining halls are equipped to adapt to the constantly changing tastes of the student body. Over the past few years, the fare has become healthier, more seasonal and more diverse. The chefs and dining hall managers read our comment cards and more than 700 student survey responses every semester. They meet with student government and host sample-and-vote opportunities when it comes time to choose a new ice cream or cereal.

The dining halls also provide plenty of raw ingredients with which students can cook for themselves. During his sophomore year, senior Thomas Graff experimented by crossing different international cuisines. In search of more fusion cuisine ideas, he started his own Facebook group, Eat Like a Champion Today, in September 2012, to collect and sample the dining hall recipes of his peers. At first, he invited just a few of his cooking-inclined friends, but soon it exploded into an almost 200-member gourmet forum.

For a main course, Graff likes to make chicken fajitas. He starts with a garlic and herb tortilla, and then gathers cheddar cheese, thinly-sliced bell peppers, baby spinach, red onions and grilled chicken.

“It’s thinking about how you can mix together different islands and different food groups,” Graff says. “Here’s the fun part.” He throws his vegetables onto the Panini press, getting an even heat by flipping them every minute or so with tongs.

“We think that the food here is boring or usual, but you can always be creative and discover something new. Every meal is an opportunity to improve.” When finished, Graff plops his perfectly grilled tortilla onto his plate. “That’s a wrap!” he says.

Graff’s layered dessert is easy, too: a dab of vanilla yogurt, a gooey slab of peanut butter, dried cranberries from the salad aisle and a healthy serving of honey.

The foodies who follow “Eat Like a Champion” are rare birds. For most, the extra 10 to 15 minutes it takes to create something original is time that could have been spent finishing homework, getting to class on time or squeezing in one last episode of New Girl. It’s so easy to fall into line behind the droves of students waiting for ready-to-eat home-style or Mexican meals — just one stop for a preset plate of a protein, a carbohydrate and some vegetables, and you’re good to go. Enthusiasm for culinary diversity certainly spikes when it’s Greek or Indian day, but there’s more to Mediterranean cuisine than gyros, and the typical Notre Dame student wouldn’t know it. Despite the variety, the average Notre Dame plate features chicken, steamed vegetables and the ubiquitous, mobile side dish: a banana.

But for these 170-odd burgeoning chefs, the minutes invested at the grill or bouncing from one line to another are minutes well spent. Every week they post two to three new recipes, such as Graff’s revamped hummus dish with olive oil, cayenne pepper and red peppers. If a member tests out the recipe, they’ll likely comment on the post. Graff’s hummus got a resounding “Hella!” two minutes after he shared it.

“Food is another way to approach your own life and creativity and how you make old things new,” Graff says. “How do we make discoveries? What does it mean to have an insight? Cooking is a physical way of asking these questions. It’s how you make new connections between foods and just have fun with it. Most of our lives we go through routines and have a context and limits in which we work. Within those limits there are opportunities to see new things and then enjoy it.”

In the dorms, cooking for one seems futile because most of the kitchens are woefully unequipped. Unless a dorm was built after 1990, the kitchen usually features a temperamental oven, a few lost spoons and leftover hot dog buns from the last dorm grill-out. Getting the ingredients and tools needed to bake desserts, let alone a meal for one, is too time-consuming to be enjoyable — unless you’re senior Adam Joslyn, who makes delectable desserts in his Keough Hall kitchen.

Adam Joslyn, photo by Barbara Johnston

Joslyn started baking when he was in high school. Tired of watching movies, he and his then-girlfriend started experimenting with cupcake and cookie recipes, and soon were hooked.

At Notre Dame, Joslyn found his friends had nothing to do on Thursday nights, so he started baking treats in Keough Hall’s kitchen. Week after week he would try new recipes, filling the hall with the smells of vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon and peanut butter. People would flock from all over the dorm, and then from all over campus, to hang out in the kitchen with Joslyn and enjoy his finished products. Soon it was common to find students munching on Joslyn’s cupcakes while watching movies into the wee hours of Friday morning. Joslyn became “That Baking Guy” among the ever-hungry underclassmen.

He spends about $200 per year in Flex Points on baking supplies. (Imagine the looks you’d get checking out at the Huddle Mart with just eight packages of butter.) Several pots, pans, beaters, tins and mixing bowls live in his dorm room, keeping would-be pilferers from snatching them out of the kitchen cupboards.

Today, Joslyn fields requests from friends and strangers alike to deliver his goods from Keough’s oven to locations across campus. Satisfied customers have included students in residential halls, libraries and even some classrooms. Demand rises when Joslyn proudly posts his completed creations on Facebook; requests come pouring in via comments on the tantalizing pictures.

The math major is looking to impress potential employers with his baking skills. “Whoever hires me is going to be very lucky — I’ll be baking for them hopefully every week.” He even debated bringing a batch of fresh cupcakes to an interview in Chicago with an event-production agency. “I couldn’t have them thinking I was all talk,” he says. “If anything, it gives them an insight into my personality. It’s a subtle way of saying, ‘Hey, there’s more.’”

Many halls operate food sales out of their kitchens to support dorm events and feed residents late into the night. Run by their respective hall governments, Morrissey Manor has Yaz’s, “serving the best in frozen foods since 2001.” McGlinn Hall hosts the Shamrock Snack Shack, baking cupcakes, cookies and birthday cakes. Keenan Hall’s student-run pizzeria, Zaland, serves fresh cheese, pepperoni and sausage pizzas every night for late study sessions and dorm events.

At Zaland, whole pizzas cost from $6 to $7 depending on the toppings, but one slice is only $1. Zaland has its own pizza oven, and its cooks may start making homemade dough for special occasions, says senior Kevin McGinn, who has worked in the kitchen since he was a sophomore. As this year’s manager of Zaland, McGinn is in charge of ordering all the pizzeria’s ingredients. His Wednesday night shift goes from 9:30 until midnight, but on weekends, pizzas are served hot until 2:30 a.m.

“It’s a great way to give back to the dorm, see everyone and provide pizza where it’s needed,” McGinn said. Zaland doesn’t deliver yet but may soon serve other halls on North Quad.

Zaland sees an uptick in customers during the winter months when residents are less likely to venture out to find late-night sustenance. McGinn has seen packs of Stanford residents cross the hallway that connects the two dorms to clear out the Zaland stock. Zaland pizza is most popular during exam week, halftime during Irish away games and Super Bowl weekend.

“All the funds go back into Keenan to support the dorm,” McGinn said. “We give the pizza to the hall staff for free to thank them for all their hard work, and any pizza that’s left over after closing is free, too. That usually draws quite a swarm.”

The breakfast spread at South Dining Hall is one of the best parts of the Notre Dame experience. There’s fruit, freshly baked muffins, custom omelets, The New York Times and unlimited coffee. Those who have a 9:30 class can be seen yawning over their scrambled eggs and bacon at either cafeteria, and on the weekends, North Dining Hall serves incredible strawberry and blueberry crepes, drizzled with chocolate and caramel.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially for students, so senior Gina Rogari wakes up before her roommates to brew her own coffee, listen to Mumford & Sons and take her time making whatever she likes in the comfort of her own off-campus kitchen.

What off-campus students without meal plans lose in convenience, they often make up for in originality. Rogari makes her own bread, granola and signature avocado and rosemary egg sandwiches. She says cooking for herself is 90 percent mental.

“If you start feeling like cooking is something you have to do and don’t want to do, you’ll eat frozen pizza, pasta and cereal every night for an entire month,” she says. “If you strive to make a few creative things each week for dinner or breakfast, it becomes a whole new ballgame.

“I love proving to myself that I can make something as good or better than something you can find in a restaurant. I love when you set out to copy a recipe in a beautiful cookbook and actually succeed. I love when other people appreciate your efforts, and I love knowing I’ll spend more time enjoying a meal if it took more than three minutes to prepare.”

Gina Rogari and Meredith Houska, photo by Barbara Johnston

Still, Rogari misses the creature comforts the dining halls offer: the selection, the frozen yogurt, the waffles, the companionship. “The food is always hot, there is always chocolate milk, and you can always go back for more,” she says. “If anyone has an RSVP meal burning a hole in his pocket, I wouldn’t decline it.”

Rogari’s roommate, senior Meredith Houska, prefers baking off-campus because she can experiment more and have all her cooking and baking tools on hand. While Martin’s Supermarket is her customary grocery, Houska shops the new Whole Foods Market on Grape Road and South Bend Farmers’ Market for some items.

Typical desserts for Houska include cheesecakes and cookies, but she occasionally will make a pie. “My love for baking started as something that I did with my mom. It’s always been our time together. Now I use it as a stress reliever and something to break up my day. Baking allows me to share treats with friends and hopefully make their day a little sweeter,” she says.

Senior Carolyn Green, who lives on campus, frequently visits the kitchen Houska and Rogari share to cook and bake. Green writes a cooking blog for The Columbian, the newspaper in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, and almost every time she bakes, she tries a new recipe she’s found on Pinterest. Her healthy dinners often include seafood, thanks to her Pacific Northwest love of fresh fish.

When Green was about 3 years old, her father gave her mother cooking lessons for her birthday. But since her mother was on bed rest, her father wound up attending the lessons instead, discovering a passion for the kitchen and becoming a household gourmet chef. Green eventually learned her father’s specialties — shrimp risotto, deep-dish stuffed-spinach pizza and pork tenderloin fajitas — so she eats well and spends less on dining out in South Bend.

Saving money does cost Green precious time planning a meal, driving to the store, shopping, cooking, eating and cleaning up. But, she says, “Cooking is something I do to relax.”

For these students like Green, following a recipe and measuring out ingredients is just enough mental engagement to distract them from an impending accounting exam. Hearing roommates inhale and exclaim, “That smells amazing,” can be as rewarding as acing a philosophy paper. It’s another way to get that accomplishment fix, to satisfy the craving for success that got them to Notre Dame in the first place.

Alec Samolczyk likes how cooking creates a casual celebration. In his off-campus kitchen, he can produce a meal that brings his friends together, replacing a common dining hall experience.

For recipes and inspiration Samolcyzk looks to Bon Appetit Magazine and his favorite chefs, Eric Ripert, David Cheng and Fergus Henderson. He tries to cook seasonally as much as possible. “My favorite winter meal is one that takes all day to make: red-wine braised short ribs with creamy polenta,” he says. “It’s a family favorite that makes the whole house smell so good.”

Samolczyk started teaching himself to cook when he was in elementary school by reading cookbooks and magazines, and watching the Food Network. He eventually took over grilling responsibilities for his father. This past Thanksgiving marked the eighth year in a row he prepared the dinner for his family solo. He does the same for Christmas and New Year’s.

“I would like to work the business end of cooking as a restaurateur,” the senior finance and economics major says. “A meal, to me, is about more than just the food; it’s about the experience that comes along with it.”

A meal at Notre Dame is more than just what’s on the menu. It means packing a kitchen with roommates for fresh bread. It means taking a break to make someone a birthday cake. It means settling into chairs alongside our classmates and letting the whole world shrink down to this intimate wooden table, just for an hour. It means savoring the ruckus, the laughter, the creativity and the flavor — the true taste of home cooking.

Meghan Thomassen is managing editor of The Observer and was this magazine’s autumn intern.