Feeding the Campus & the Story of our Pretty Amazing Fish Taco
The fish taco at HSU isn’t just a fish taco. It’s the most popular dish served at the Jolly Giant Commons. And it reflects a culinary conscientiousness among today’s students of what’s good to the palate, for the body, and for the environment.
THAT MINDFULNESS SHOWS in the kitchen of the campus’s main residential dining spot, the J. It’s everything you expect a commercial kitchen to sound and look like: there’s clanking, scraping, and running water; ladles and tongs hanging from racks; and at every turn, stainless steel (industrial stoves, ovens, and freezers).
At a chopping station is lunch cook Adam Timek. He’s head down, preparing vegetables for next day’s onslaught of fish taco-making and eating. “Students come out of the woods on fish taco day,” Timek says, taking a brief break. “We’re making taco after taco after taco. People have tried to order four to eight tacos at a time.”
With serrated knife in hand, Timek gives a halved tomato a “nice chop,” which (for us inexperienced cooks) means cutting tomatoes into little cubes until he ends up with 24 cups. He’ll move on to hand-chopping cabbage for the coleslaw and radishes, and then making from scratch the adobo sauce and tempura fish-frying batter.
With the exception of the canned jalapeños, all veggies are fresh. But that’s the story of most food served on campus.
“People think that all our food comes off a commercial truck, is frozen, and pre-made. Out of necessity, some things have to be but a lot of what we serve is fresh, local, and made from scratch,” says Dining Services Assistant Director Mary Ann Brown.
Eaters of Today
FRESH. LOCAL. HOMEMADE. Not exactly the words some would use to describe college cuisine of yesteryear. Back in the day, campus food was—to put it kindly—as delicious and exciting as a No. 2 pencil. Some remember flaccid broccoli and rubbery roasted turkey, while Dawn Aubrey recalls limited choices.
“It was a different time in mid-’80s, at least for me. There wasn’t much variety,” says Aubrey, board president of the National Association of College & University Food Services, and associate director of Housing and Dining Services for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We were excited to have two choices. The day they started making chicken patty sandwiches was heavenly.”
Aubrey estimates college cuisine started to change in the late ’90s, when universities began hiring trained chefs who brought with them culinary skills. Another driving force of change is students. They’re more aware of food issues than previous generations and, as a result, demand choices that are healthy, eco- and socially-conscious, and tasty.
Colleges like HSU and the restaurant industry have responded. About 94 percent of college and university operators in the United States purchase local produce. And according to the National Restaurant Association, the top culinary trends of the last decade have been local sourcing, gluten free cuisine, and environmental sustainability.
“Students are sensitive to the impact of food choices, which is refreshing to see. This generation is going to delve more deeply into wellness beyond physiology, but also the planet, paying attention to what they’re eating and how it’s being produced,” says Aubrey.
In one week HSU serves…
200 pounds Broccoli
180 pounds Romaine Lettuce
105 pounds Mushrooms
124 pounds Spinach
418 pounds Tomatoes
56 pounds Sprouts
288 pounds Green Leaf Lettuce
342 pounds Red Grapes
250 pounds Yellow Onions
432 pounds Strawberries
300 pounds Tofu
Cooking with a Conscience
AT THIS POINT, healthy and sustainable eating is no longer new to HSU. Dining Services has served burgers made from grass-fed beef (J Grill) for the last 15 years and more plant-based options the last 20 years, and has been buying locally (within a 250-mile radius) for at least the last decade. Today, those products include bagels, tofu burgers, bread, salsa, and produce.
BROWN SAYS that HSU’s location affects the ability to buy local.
Schools in or near bigger cities can purchase produce all year round. What HSU can buy locally depends on the season and whether the item can be supplied in the quantity that’s necessary to feed diners at the campus’ main eateries daily: 3,000 at the J and 2,500 at the Depot. If Brown can’t find what she needs, she turns to a commercial distributor.
There are practical considerations, too. For the fish taco, Brown needed a mild fish that could be prepped and cooked quickly and in large batches. Sysco’s frozen cod fit the bill. The fish came de-boned and was available in bulk. However, most fish at the J is locally-sourced, including sustainability-focused Pacific Seafood.
“We’re not perfect—no one is,” says Brown. “We do use some frozen and canned ingredients just like people do at home when they make their meals. But we always remember that students live here. This is their home and this is their kitchen. So we cook as sustainably as possible, and use fresh ingredients whenever we can.”
Attempts to be green go beyond comestibles. Brown says her cooks try to prepare just the right amount of food and use leftover ingredients for other dishes. Dining Services offers reusable to-go containers, mason jars for discounts on coffee, and compostable utensils. Just last semester it started encouraging the use of the Earth Tub composting tub in the University’s corporation yard, which is managed by the Compost Squad, part of the HSU Waste-Reduction & Resource Awareness Program.
Initiatives and changes like these, says Aubrey, can have lasting impacts now and in the future.
“Colleges and universities are the birthplace of trends, and it’s with us that students start developing lifelong habits, molding experience of what is wellness and sustainability,” says Aubrey. “We get to serve the future every day.”
What’s on the Menu?
THE FUTURE COMES around each summer when Brown and her crew have to update and create the menu for the rest of the year. For a dish to make the cut, it obviously has to be appetizing, hence the insistence things are made from scratch. From the Depot’s pupusas and tabbouleh at the campus convenience store, College Creek Marketplace, to the coconut curry at HSU’s sit-down restaurant, Windows Café, many dishes are homemade.
Taste isn’t the only criteria. Cooks need a recipe, such as jambalaya, that can be replicated and created in mass batches.
Being on the menu is one thing. Staying on it is another. For this reason, Brown is persnickety about presentation.
“Everybody eats with their eyes.
If it doesn’t look good they’re not going to eat it,” says Brown.
There’s science to back up her claim. According to a study by a Cornell University scientist, sight affects our perception of flavor. Similarly, an Oxford University experiment found that diners thought a salad that resembled an abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky tasted better than salads that were tossed or neatly arranged.
With that in mind, Timek cuts vegetables for the fish tacos by hand.
“We have a machine that dices, but Mary Ann likes tomatoes hand-cut. They look and taste better,” Timek says.
Yes, appearances do matter—especially around one’s mouth and in one’s teeth.
“We know that students won’t eat corn on the cob because it’s messy,” says Brown. “They don’t want to do that in front of their friends, so we don’t order it anymore.”
And sometimes, students help implement major dining changes such as Meatless Mondays. It’s the local version of a global movement that raises awareness of the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.
No matter the menu, however, Brown says it’s the staff and students who make Dining Services shine.
“This is a hectic business. There’s a lot of pressure to feed students, and the calls for catering never stop. I couldn’t do this without the dedicated army of staff and students behind me.”
Fry. Construct. Eat. Repeat.
THE CULINARY PROCESS from planning to the plate appears to boil down to pride, care, and teamwork.
It’s 10 a.m., the morning the fish tacos are served, and Jose Zapata works the deep fryer. Zapata (’15, Business Administration)—hired as a student and now a full-time staffer—turns his attention to the cod planks. He dunks each in homemade tempura batter where they sit for a few minutes to absorb the flavors. He cooks 10 to 12 pieces of fish at a time—any more and they overcrowd and won’t cook evenly, he says.
He’s also in charge of the grill, where marinated skirt steaks are cooking for the fajitas that will also be served today. One thing you notice as he’s jumping between stations: no timers like a home cook might use to know when a dish is done.
“You gotta feel it. If you’re cooking and you’re happy, the food comes out good,” says Zapata. He often makes tacos with staff cook Tina Medeiros, who is part of what Zapata sees as a kitchen community. “Our teamwork doesn’t end there. Day to day we work hard, like the rest of our dining family.”
Nearby, tortillas topped with cheese are being grilled on the flat stovetop, and a few minutes later they’re placed in a pan and moved to the assembly station. There, Timek begins constructing tacos one by one: a strip of fried fish, flanked by coleslaw, followed by veggies and drizzled with the ranch-chipotle sauce. He packs them neatly onto a large baking tray. Timing, he says, is important. Tacos are created no earlier than 10:20 a.m. so the tacos are fresh for lunch at 10:30.
Timek takes the tray and slides it through a small window. On the other side is a student who takes it to the serving counter, where Business major and first-year HSU student Brisa Bassett waits. She’s one of the first people in line to order the tacos.
“I’m from Southern California, and the Mexican food is better there, but the J’s fish tacos are still pretty decent,” she says. “I like the sauce. It has a good flavor and texture. I highly recommend the fish tacos.”
Her score on a scale from 1 to 10? “I’d give them a 7.”
Like Bassett, Kim Encio, also from Southern California, is a fan of fish tacos and the sauce. And she’s slightly more generous with her appraisal.
“Obviously, the tacos don’t taste the way they do at home, but these are really good,” she says. “I’d give them a solid 8.”
Fast Fact Snacks
Some trivia about campus eateries
Décor has a “local” flair. Light fixtures are from Fire & Light in Arcata. Embedded in the floor tile are agate rocks—common to Humboldt County beaches.
The only location with sit-down service.
COLLEGE CREEK MARKETPLACE
A full-service market that sells groceries, hot foods, and cookware.
The Giant’s Cupboard
It sells the most Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Humboldt County.
Its name references its train-themed forebear, the Rathskeller, which featured a ticket counter.
The single best salad bar in the county.
One of the best views on campus, rivaling the view from the fourth floor of the Behavioral & Social Sciences building.
Served 1,358 events in 2016.