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Chef Program Turns College Cafeterias into Gourmet Destinations


In the dormitory dining hall, opposite the Jell-O cups and the pizza station, a gourmet meal awaited: Fenugreek-braised beef short ribs served on a schmear of apple-celery root puree, topped by shrimp poached in olive oil and garlic.

Call it Gastronomy 101. For one night a month, the “Guest Chef” program at the University of Pennsylvania turns a college cafeteria into a culinary destination.

“I think students definitely appreciate the more gourmet food,” said freshman Laura Jean Kemp, 18, noting she normally eats chili and fruit but was savoring the sample of fine cuisine.

The menu at Hill College House cafeteria for one night last week was devised by Michael Solomonov, executive chef at Marigold Kitchen and the recipient of Philadelphia Magazine’s best new chef award last year.

His appearance was part of a program Penn began in the spring to treat students to something different, allow local chefs to show off their talent, and give dining staff a chance to learn new techniques, said Marie Witt, Penn’s vice president of business services.

Chefs are not compensated but the university pays for the ingredients. Campus executive chef Tia McDonald, who worked with Solomonov to transfer the tastes from his relatively small BYO restaurant to an industrial-size cafeteria, said she valued the opportunity to “try and remove the stigma of cafeteria food.”

But it was still a bit overwhelming for the guest chef. Standing over the dining hall’s massive tilt skillet filled with dozens of ribs, Solomonov said he’s never made anything on such a large scale before.

“I’ll order 30 pounds of short ribs for my restaurant. She ordered 300 pounds. I don’t even know what that would look like in a room,” said Solomonov.

Nearby, dining hall cook Denise Longstratt was chopping cilantro to go with the slivers of green apples that would top the poached shrimp. Working with Solomonov was a nice change of pace, she said.

“We do the same menu cycle over and over,” said Longstratt. She relished the chance to do something different and “show them what kind of skills I have.”

The program seems to be popular with diners, too. Solomonov’s menu attracted 730 customers, 44 percent above the average dinner count for October, according to Penn Dining.

Senior Dave Matz, 22, was with a group of mainly upperclassmen who said they came to the dining hall specifically for the event. They normally eat off-campus.

Matz said he had never heard of Marigold Kitchen but would be willing to eat there now. The rib meat was “very good,” said Matz, who wanted seconds until seeing the huge crowd waiting to be served.

“Look at this line. This is killing me,” he said. “I should have gotten five of them.”

Freshman Kelcie Pinick, 19, also enjoyed the gourmet treat.

“This tasted like something my mom makes,” Pinick said.

Last month, Matthew Babbage, executive chef at World Cafe Live, treated Penn students to an Asian noodle salad with seared tuna. He said students’ palates are much more sophisticated than when he worked in college cafeterias as a culinary student.

“The only tuna I would have served then would have been tuna salad sandwiches,” said Babbage. “They never would have eaten anything like this.”

On the Net:

Penn Dining:

Marigold Kitchen:

World Cafe Live:

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