Bon Appétit Teams with Carleton’s FireBellies for ‘Top Chef Dining Hall’

By Vayu Maini Rekdal, Carleton College ’14

Vayu (left) looks on as second-place Garden Snakes presents bruschetta on whole grain bread with an arugula salad tossed in a home-made balsamic vinaigrette, lo mein stir fry with seared seitan, and "strawberry apples" on a granola bed with organic honey

As a foodie, two things struck me when I first came to Carleton College as a freshman last fall. Although Carleton is a very food-aware campus, there was not yet a cooking club. And despite the great-tasting array of food served in the dining halls, students seemed to complain regularly about their meals. I was surprised and wanted to do something to change this.

During a late night in September in the study lounge of my resident hall, shortly after I settled on campus, two friends and I laid the foundation for a student organization that would reach unprecedented heights, pushing boundaries in what student organizing and culinary tradition mean at Carleton. After some intense deliberation and brain-storming at 3am, the FireBellies cooking club was born.

FireBellies really took off this winter. Suddenly, we had over 200 names on our email list, and more and more people started showing up at our biweekly events — healthy cooking classes and cooking games. And having established a solid board of students, our message was getting out there: we were helping to cultivate an interest in sustainable and healthy cooking as well as to promote an understanding of different cultures and backgrounds through the universal language of food.

Apple-spinach wraps with olives, sunflower seeds, raisins, and blue cheese on lightly grilled cucumber, served with homemade sriracha croutons

But there’s another part to the FireBellies’ mission. We wanted to improve the relationship between Bon Appétit Management Company, Carleton’s food service provider, and the student body. As a dining hall worker, I had gotten to know the onsite Bon Appétit staff pretty well and learned the story behind how the company tries to fulfill its mission to have a positive impact on food, farmers, and farmworkers at both the local and national levels. I thought that since both Firebellies and Bon Appétit are driven to change the way people view food, we should collaborate. The Bon Appétit team at Carleton was incredibly keen to do so, and truthfully, without the support of General Manager Katie McKenna, Sous Chef Gibson Price, Registered Dietician Jennifer Pope, and others, the FireBellies would not be what it is today.

One of our most recent successes was Carleton’s first-ever Top Chef Dining Hall. As a chef, I love the dining halls. The vast selection of carefully prepared foods triggers my creativity. Every meal takes me on a new culinary adventure. I get to mix the Asian station with the American, fusing flavors, textures, and cuisines. Students sometimes complain that “there’s nothing to eat,” but that’s a result of their lack of creativity, not Bon Appétit’s. If you eat pasta Alfredo every meal, no matter how flavorful, it can get boring in the long run.

Some of the judges at work: FireBellies President Vayu Rekdal (left) and Bon Appétit Sous Chefs Vale Riggs and Gibson Price

I wanted to convey this message to my peers. The idea of Top Chef Dining Hall is simple: in 30 minutes, five teams compete in making a three-course dinner (appetizer, entrée, and dessert) with only the ingredient and equipment available in the dining hall. The teams are then judged Top Chef style, based on creativity, flavor, concept, and presentation.

I thought this fun competition would not only help students’ creativity, but also help them realize that the food here is delicious and made of high-quality ingredients.

Bon Appétit helped make the event beyond what I imagined. Bon Appétit Foundation Fellow (and Carleton alumna) Vera Chang flew in from the West Coast to kick off the event with an announcement about Bon Appétit’s recent animal welfare commitment. Sous Chefs Vale Riggs and Gibson Price came to judge the food. The 20 participants created amazing meals that no one expected, and tons of people came and watched.

Winning team receives trophies and congratulations from the judges

Top Chef Dining Hall was a major success, and not just because of the delicious Asian pear salad and panini pressed-pizza inspiration, as mentioned in Lauren Elher’s recent article. Since this event, many students have told me that they’ve become more aware of what they eat and how they eat it. It’s as if there’s a positive energy on campus. Before I left for spring break, a fellow student said, “The food is great.” Another said he would suggest artichoke pizza to be served next term. Students seem to have realized that Bon Appétit is really here to serve the student body.

We plan to make Top Chef Dining Hall a Carleton tradition, but that’s just the beginning. This is a story I hope will spread beyond Carleton; a story about how students and their dining services provider can together work to write the next chapter of a sustainable future.

Learn more about what the FireBellies are up to at Carleton College