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Modern Seattle dorm food is diverse, but students still crave pizza

A mac & cheese burger served at the University of Washington's new Center Table cafeteria. (Photo by Rachel Belle)

Classes are back in session at Seattle’s universities, and for thousands of students that means living away from home for the first time. And if you’re a dorm dweller, that means swapping meals at your family’s table for long community tables in the dorm cafeteria.

College cafeteria food hasn’t always had the best reputation; visions of lunch ladies in hairnets and mystery meat come to mind. But these days, thanks to food television and Instagram, young Americans are more food savvy than ever before. The class of 2022 grew up on sushi and quinoa, so dorm cafeteria chefs have high expectations to meet.

“I actually went to school and I lived here and I saw what dorm food was like when I lived here. It wasn’t incredible,” said John Mehl, executive chef and general manager of the University of Washington’s brand new cafeteria, Center Table.

“I’ve worked in Seattle since 1987. I’ve been at small hotels, large restaurants, and what bought me back here was to bring that kind of restaurant quality.”

But cooking for college students is harder than cooking for restaurant patrons. Students are eating there day in and day out. You have to appeal to palates from around the world, provide comfort food during finals and periods of homesickness and portions must be scaled up to accommodate more than a thousand hungry students every day.

Seattle Pacific University’s executive chef, Chris Studtmann, has a three prong approach to creating his menu.

“I take a look at what’s happening nationally. Then we look at what’s happening within campuses as well. Then we get down to the local level and talk to the students, look at the demographics of the students who are here. Here in Seattle, at SPU, we have a lot of Hawaiian students, we have a lot of people from southeast Asia and we have to make sure that food is real, right, authentic.”

He tries to look ahead to future culinary trends, but often sticks to older trends that are safer, more mainstream choices to serve a broad audience. Right now, the demographic he’s cooking for is into creative food truck fusion.

“We’re doing a Korean barbecue pulled pork bao bun with a sriracha aioli, Asian slaw,” Studtmann said. “Served with a little bit of Jasmine rice, beautiful on the side. Anything you can put with avocado people are going to love right now. So we do a lot of things with breakfast, we’re growing on the plant based movement. This morning we did a savory grits bowl with roasted sweet potatoes and kale.”

But for every grain bowl they serve, there has to be a slice of pizza. I approached a student who was eating a bowl of cereal alongside a plate of pizza for lunch.

“I’m working with the I-forgot-to-come-to-breakfast special, which is grabbing some good cereal while getting the necessary pizza that you need every day,” said Grant Rasmussen, a junior at SPU.

He was eating a bowl of Reese’s Puffs cereal. I asked if he ate that way at his parents house, before he moved out.

“No,” he laughed. “My parents wouldn’t let me have this kind of cereal.”

One very modern thing that both SPU and the University of Washington have added to their cafeterias, is a defined area for students with allergies.

“None of the top 8 allergens are there,” Mehl said. “So there’s no dairy, there’s no egg, there’s no fish, there’s no soy, there’s no tree nuts, there’s no peanuts, there’s no wheat. One of the great things of opening a new facility is everything is new in there. It’s never seen any milk, it’s never seen any eggs, it’s a self contained kitchen. It has its own dry storage, has its own prep area, has its own dishwasher, walk-in and walk-in freezer.”

Chef Mehl also has fun with a dinner series they call the Pac-12 Rivals Meals.

“One of the things we do every year, that’s been a tradition, is we eat duck when we play Oregon. We’re kind of doing the colors, too. So I have the duck with sauteed greens and an apricot glaze for getting the yellow and green in there. Also we are doing a kale and squash risotto.”

Both schools get some of their produce delivered from local farms and boast salad bars and healthy options.

But let’s be real, these are college students and a lot of them are still teenagers. He truly hates to admit it, but Chef Mehl says the most popular thing they serve is chicken fingers and fries.

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