A Growing Taste on Campus

Learning the basics.
Learning the basics. // Annelisa Leinbach

Last semester, if you happened to pass by the Davenport buttery on a Friday night, you would’ve found the space transformed into an Izakaya, a drinking and snack den common in Japan. “Irashai-Mashei!” A group of dedicated student cooks would’ve greeted you from the kitchen as they served up Miso Stews and Tom Yung Tacos.

This was Nom, the second kitchen studio started by the student organization Yale Pop-up. The brainchild of Lucas Sin ’15 and Kay Teo ’16, Yale Pop-up is a culinary project aimed at bringing together a community of chefs, bakers and gourmets to open one kitchen per semester. So far, they have introduced both Nom and last spring’s Underground Noodle Collective, which specialized in ramen. This semester, Yale Pop-up is back with Fortnight, which offers a more refined take than its predecessor and will serve a new five-course menu every two weeks. The operation, from interior design to kitchen-duty, is entirely student-run.

“We want to focus on developing a chef’s culinary curiosity and being able to experiment and test out things that you wouldn’t be able to do in a professional or student kitchen,” said Carolina Rivera ’16, who will be running Fortnight alongside Sin this semester.

The opportunity to try on a chef’s hat is a boon to many interested in exploring the culinary arts at Yale, as there is both wide student interest and administrative support. The goal for many food entrepreneurs, therefore, often lies in honing that experimental energy, while resisting getting lost in complexity.

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Students interviewed consider Yale’s campus a more than ideal environment for a food start-up to thrive, given the copious resources offered by the University and a student body with a wide variety of culinary and entrepreneurial skills.

But, like any business venture, location comes first. Yale Pop-up was given permission to use the Davenport Dive, a crucial factor in their success.

“Without the Dive, we would not have been able to function,” Rivera said. “Not having to pay rent puts us on an entirely different playing field.” Property taxes and utility bills do not factor into the restaurateurs’ concerns.

Barriers to entry are low. Unlike in the competitive Elm City restaurant scene, Pop-up does not need to stake its own territory. There will always be students who are enthusiastic about food.

The members of the Pop-up team represent a wide and diverse range of interests and backgrounds. Pastry chef Abigail Reisner ’14, a psychology major, iced cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery in New York, attended cooking school and worked on a farm in Greece and tested recipes for “Cooks Illustrated.” Business manager Angeline Wang ’16 is a literature major, who “reads books almost as voraciously as she reads menus.”

It is the interdisciplinary nature of the food industry that makes it so accessible and versatile. “Food is such an interdisciplinary domain,” Sin said, “you can apply your expertise into the food world, it’s so open-ended.”

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Just as there are multiple ways into Yale’s food scene, there is no single career path out of it and into the culinary world.

Rivera, a pre-med history major, was never a self-proclaimed foodie, but after three summer months waiting tables at her hometown Olive Garden, she unexpectedly stumbled upon Nom and loved it.

“I get this thrill, this rush from people coming in, having to solve a million problems,” she said. “It’s super stressful but incredible.”

Now she is seriously considering business school and culinary management, potentially fusing her experiences with her broader public health interests.

Many successful foodies have followed a similar trajectory — those who have achieved success have found the intersection between food and other disciplines, Sin said.

Sin pointed to Rene Redzepi, a Danish chef whose food combines traditional scavenging techniques with scientific innovation; David Chang, a chef and entrepreneur who aims to reinvent how Americans experience Asian cuisine and Michael Pollan, an expert in food politics.

“Most people who follow the traditional approach to the food industry — starting as a dishwasher, moving their way up to be a head chef, get up to a certain paper ceiling,” Sin said. “You need to have a creative approach to an area that people have been messing around with since the beginning of time.”

Many of the pathways into and through the food industry will remain uncharted, but Yale’s administration has shown interest in supporting students in their endeavors. The Yale Sustainable Food Project first partnered with Undergraduate Career Services three years ago, when YSFP brought the founders of Good Food Jobs to campus. The large turnout proved that they could segment these sessions by job sectors, and, since then, UCS and YSFP have developed resource guides for each sector related to food.

The two organizations now co-host a series of career workshops providing advice for Yalies wanting to convert their passion for food into jobs in the field after graduation. These workshops are geared toward specific interests related to food and not just the restaurant industry, such as food writing and food justice and education.

According to the YSFP’s Events and Outreach Manager and Programs Manager for International and Professional Experience Jacqueline Lewin, these sessions have been growing in popularity. While Lewin could not give exact statistics as to the number of Yalies entering food-related jobs, she did say that the number has steadily increased over the past few years.

“In part, I think the increase has to do with the visibility of problems in our food system right now,” Lewin said.

She noted that the food system is a “complicated beast,” and solving its problems requires collaboration across several disciplines.

“You can’t get a tomato to a plate without addressing soil ecology, immigration, labor, transportation, communications, marketing, engineering, design, even physics,” Lewin said. “Students see the myriad ways in which our system is broken — failing communities, human health, and the environment — and they want to fix it.”

But there is also the opportunity to create for a living, rare among jobs Yalies often pursue.

Sin noted that there is something incredibly appealing about the productive nature of making food — the idea that you are creating an end product that is tangible, “rolling up your sleeves and just doing things.” When you need ingredients, for example, somebody has to go to the grocery store and buy it.

“It’s not like a consulting club where you sit around and move chess pieces around a board,” Sin said.

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While Yale Pop-Up has moved from start-up to established, another Yale culinary venture is still in its nascent phase, and its recent arrival not only indicates an expanding culinary presence on campus, but also how students must grapple with the organizational and business side in the process.

Every Saturday at 7:30 a.m, a small group of students labor over baked goods in the Jonathan Edwards basement. A couple of hours layer, as the JE chefs continue baking, students across campus slowly begin waking up to the realization that it is not yet 11 a.m. — and dining halls aren’t open for brunch.

“We saw a gap,” said the founder of JE Room Service Hall Rockefeller, referring to the time gap between waking and eating. “We thought we could fill that gap with food.”

With that goal in mind, JE Room Service delivers baked goods on Saturday mornings to those who place orders through a Google document on their website. The menu includes carrot cupcakes, cinnamon scones, banana bread, a weekly special and coffee, and its logo is an apt modification of the JE crest: the dragon holds a spatula and a rolling pin.

Starting at 5:30 p.m. every Friday evening and ending at around 8:30 p.m., the Room Service chefs whip up batter in the JE basement, said Margaret Shultz ’16, the business’s sous-chef. Fewer than 12 hours later, they’re back in the kitchen, pouring the scone and cupcake batter, baking all orders in a single oven and navigating the complicated business of making sure everything is still hot when it makes it into the customers’ hands.

“We have a strategy every week,” said Jenna Kainic ’16, who is in charge of web design and programming. “We have to figure out timing, do a bit of finagling, and work on the division of labor.”

So far, the number of weekly orders has averaged in the mid-teens, with a business record of eighteen orders placed last week.

Rockefeller echoed Sin’s sentiments about a growing culinary presence on campus. “This food network is something that’s emerging and emerging quickly,” she said, rattling off names like Northern Greening, a baking and catering service run by two students, and The Reading List, a former service that delivered boxes of gourmet pancakes, complete with glaze and sliced fruit as well as Alice in Wonderland quotes perched on the box straight to students’ doors.

Still, things connect back to Sin, and to Yale Pop-up.

Sin has played an integral role in expanding the network of food entrepreneurs on campus, Rockefeller said. He has been extremely encouraging to students who are considering their own ventures, she added.

In fact, JE Room Service was spawned from a simple comment from Sin. “You should really do something with this,” Sin said after tasting one of Rockefeller’s concoctions. From there the wheels started turning.

Room Service now has it sights set on expanding. The business lacks swipe access to many other colleges, so they cannot deliver to rooms outside of JE, or bake in their kitchens. But if demand grows, and people from other colleges sign on to help with delivery or baking, JE Room Service may no longer be based solely out of JE.

“But we’d have to change the logo if that happened,” Rockefeller said.

Ultimately, the key to their model is simplicity. Rockefeller mentioned that The Reading List offered orders that were incredibly complex — chocolate ganache and candied walnuts — hand delivered all over campus. “That’s something we aim not to do,” she said, adding that this kind of strategy felt “ambitious.”

For now, the group is settling into its niche, feeding Yalies before the doors to brunch open and adding to students’ expanding culinary entrepreneurship on campus.

 

Yi-Ling Liu contributed reporting.

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