Commons fare: Getting beyond General Tso’s

Yalies are used to crowding the aisles of Commons Dining Hall in search of crispy curly fries and oven-cooked pizzas.

But thanks to extra-long lines this September, the fries turned stale and the pizza dry as the growing queue inched past oak paneling and framed oil portraits, leading students to the sight of Ivy Noodle owner Nuanmin Guo expertly handling a sizzling wok with stir fry.

Ivy Noodle photo 1
Daniel Carvalho
Ivy Noodle photo 1

“I was disappointed that Jeff wasn’t there,” Rasesh Mohan ’11 said, referring to the famous cashier at Ivy Noodle on Elm Street, whom regular customers know as the manager of the fast-food Chinese restaurant.

But despite his initial disappointment, Mohan — like many other students interviewed — said he has found the food Guo serves up to be tasty. And while the winding line in front of the new station clogs entrances and creates traffic during the busiest hours in the dining hall, the YUDS staff is proudly unfazed.

YUDS Executive Director Rafi Taherian, an enthusiastic gourmand who joined dining services this past March, cheerfully complained about the drained soda machines near the Asian station, aptly titled Stir.

“We had no idea how successful this was going to be,” he said of the new station, which YUDS launched in an effort to add spice to Yale’s dining options.

Despite a “soft opening” that attracted little notice, Taherian said YUDS has since been impressed with the student response: 700 customers in the first two to three days, which translates into a third of Commons’ diners passing through the right side of the servery, where the station is located. On the first day, Taherian said, food expected to last for three days ran out in 15 minutes.

Why Chinese?

A week later, the line has not diminished. To keep up with demand, General Manager of YUDS Dan Flynn said he has combed Chinatown in New York City for more ingredients and extra equipment.

These authentic materials, Taherian said, are important to introducing genuine Asian cuisine in the Commons dining hall.

“You need a pasta cooker for pasta. You need a charbroiler for kebab,” he said. “We had no wok station so we used the griddle for grilled-cheese sandwiches for stir fry.” Simply put, Taherian said, the YUDS staff didn’t know how to cook Asian food.

Most students said they were pleasantly surprised to find spicy tofu in Commons, but several questioned the selection of Chinese, as opposed to some other ethnic, cuisine. Mexican food, for instance, would have been a popular addition to Yale’s dining options, Allen Sanchez ’10 said.

“This is a conspiracy,” he joked, rolling his eyes. “I have my suspicions about Yale and China.”

Sanchez, who is currently doing research on Yale’s spending for an upcoming undergraduate campaign on endowment transparency, said the University too often caters to Chinese students over others.

But the popularity of Asian food in the United States, Taherian said, is undeniable. In terms of food dollars spent, Chinese-food restaurants would outsell Italian food as the most popular cuisine if restaurant chain Olive Garden were knocked out of the picture, according to Taherian.Furthermore, he said, the Asian station serves food from Asian countries other than China.

“There is so much richness,” he said, counting off Thai and Vietnamese among the broad range of cuisines in Southeast Asia. “It’s an injustice to just say Chinese.”

And for skeptics who expect Commons to serve only Americanized versions of Asian foods, Taherian said he intends to provide an authentic dining experience — beyond General Tso’s tofu and the occasional wonton soup. In order to more accurately reproduce real Chinese food, Taherian said YUDS sought out a talented Chinese chef to work side by side with other YUDS cooks, who are learning to cook authentic food from her.

Recruiting Coreen

The idea for an Asian food station first came to Taherian and Assistant Director of YUDS Charles Bennett three months ago. To help them capitalize on the idea in their short window of time, the pair visited various popular Chinese restaurants around Yale, finally deciding on Ivy Noodle, a restaurant that Taherian said had a “good flavor profile, a clean facility and good people.”

“The timeline was quick and we didn’t have time for our cooks to go to culinary schools,” Taherian said. “I had to go try all these foods.”

And to sate the hunger of what Taherian calls “the absolute most pickiest customers you can find on the earth!” he recruited Ivy Noodle owner Guo — who goes by Coreen — to cook for Yalies. The Local 35 Union, he said, worked out the bidding process to bring Guo on board, since the University cannot hire through recruitment.

“So far, there hasn’t been a single dish I haven’t liked,” Taherian said as he picked at his second helping of coconut chicken curry with a pair of chopsticks.

A native Chinese woman, Coreen said she took the job to introduce real Chinese food, or “comfort food,” to students, instead of typical take-out American Chinese cuisine that caters to Western tastes. Still, Coreen — who was already sweating at the beginning of the lunch rush — admitted that Stir is “a big production.” In over 20 years as a cook, she said, she has never seen such a volume of customers. Every night, she said, she considers new dishes and more choices for the following week.

The current lunch menu features one spicy food and one tofu dish everyday. The emphasis is on stir fry — thus the stand’s name — and there is plenty of Chinese broccoli, chicken, curry and fried rice, not to mention spicy sauces. While YUDS originally planned to offer at least 10 items each day, they ultimately limited it to six to seven offerings to make the cooks’ workload more manageable.

Although students have said the food tastes “just like Ivy Noodle,” Coreen, who now spends most of her time cooking in Commons, claimed her restaurant serves different dishes than those offered at the dining hall. After all, Ivy Noodle’s specialty is in, well, noodles.

Said YUDS Executive Chef Thomas Peterlik: “We try to avoid competition and have the least impact on local businesses.”

Sushi and frozen yogurt

Taherian is not unaware of the impatience of those forced to wait in long lines at Stir. YUDS, he said, is looking to expand its dining options even further.

“Most [of my] learning takes place in the dining halls,” Taherian said enthusiastically. “The role of the dining hall has evolved in recent years from cafeterias and mystery meat to a learning experience.”

And Yale, he added, is a world-class organization deserving of world-class food service.

So, Taherian said, YUDS is considering expanding the menu to include Latin American foods, including Brazilian, regional Mexican, Peruvian, Argentine and Cuban cuisines. His eyes widened as he gestured to the southeast corner of Commons: “We can set up a Marche-type market and make use of all this space.” Since Stir is only offered for lunch, Taherians said he wants to offer something different for dinner.

“Maybe a sushi station?” he wondered aloud.

In addition, Taherian and his colleagues are looking to expand their desert offerings. Flynn unfolded an article about tart frozen yogurt to share with Taherian and Peterlik.

“We’re foodie people,” Taherian said with a smile.

Comments

  • JE 10

    Allen Sanchez needs to realize that Chinese food isn't only edible by Chinese students.