On Monday night, Chef Cal Peternell served over 120 students an elegant multi-course dinner in Commons. I was there to investigate.
Cal Peternell is the chef of Chez Panisse, an esteemed restaurant in Berkeley. He is also the author of a new “back to basics” cookbook titled 12 Recipes. This work, he told us, was inspired by his son’s imminent departure to college. During the dinner and cooking demonstration, Peternell read from his cookbook, reflecting on family, the restaurant business, and the Michelin star system.
After waiting in line for 20 minutes with anxious, waitlisted friends, I was ushered into a dazzlingly bejeweled Commons. Golden strands of lights hung overhead, and great wooden partitions provided a more intimate ambiance. Since Commons stopped serving dinner several years ago, the experience of sitting down for a meal under the halls’ dark beams and gothic chandeliers has been something I had only dreamed of.
“I feel really privileged to eat dinner in Commons. The way they decorated like Hogwarts makes me even more excited for the Freshman Dinner,” Lauren Sapienza ’18 said. Indeed, there is something extraordinary about eating dinner in Commons. Chef Peternell agreed, pausing to look around. “This room, it’s incredible,” he said.
I sat down at a table close enough to see the raised demonstration station, but just far enough to avoid catching my hair on fire should disaster strike. The appetizers included thin crisp toasts with butternut squash hummus, curried deviled eggs and mint radish iceberg lettuce wedges. The main course was twice-cooked pork with salsa verde, braised chicken, fried greens meatless meatballs, macaroni and cheese, roasted root vegetables and sautéed broccoli raab. Dessert was a delectable pear upside-down cake with whipped cream.
The appetizers were carefully laid out on starched white tablecloths before we entered. The hummus, a rich emulsion graced with the sweetness of the squash, paired excellently with the saltier crisps. Curry made a fiery appearance in the deviled eggs that waited patiently, yolks carefully piped and swirled for their unsuspecting victims. The iceberg lettuce wedges were refreshingly crisp and the bunkhouse dressing was a tart ranch bleu cheese hybrid.
“Once you cook something a dozen times, a written recipe becomes unnecessary,” Peternell said as he prepared the fresh salsa verde with parsley, garlic and olive oil. He took questions after a vigorous chop and described his time living in Italy, as well as his opinions on the Michelin Star system, of which he said, “I think it’s useless. I don’t really get it. … I’ve eaten at places that have one star and I couldn’t really figure out why.”
The twice-cooked pork was without a doubt the highlight of the dinner. Despite receiving a scant serving (about the size of a small golf ball) I was able to confirm my salivating suspicions by swiping a hunk from my neighbors plate. The pork was indeed juicy and tender, just smoky enough to avoid actually tasting twice cooked. The fragrant salsa verde, reminiscent of a fresher, lighter Argentinean chimichurri, was drizzled liberally over the entrée.
Despite my delight with the pork I remained suspicious. Like any Yalie with a meal plan, I knew better that to be lulled into a sleepy unfounded satisfaction by the pretty lights and a decent piece of meat. My deep-seated skepticism was validated with the subsequent arrival of several shoddy dishes. The macaroni and cheese in a home-style pan reminded me of childhood images of Grandma’s food. However, when I tasted it, it was more reminiscent of a decidedly recent memory — lunch last week in the Berkeley dining hall. Indeed, throughout the dinner, I got the sense that Yale Dining had put their own spin on Peternell’s recipes. The “braised” chicken legs were slimy and the “fried greens meatless meatball” were just plain scary. After the stress of the meatless meatballs, the cake was a welcome respite. The pears were perfectly caramelized and melted in my mouth instantly. The cake was moist and just sweet enough to harmonize perfectly with the freshly whipped cream, which I had scooped greedily onto my plate.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the dinner. The menu was very well planned, providing something for everyone. I’m a proud carnivore (that pork still lingers in my mind) but I have to admit that the root vegetables were roasted to perfection, and the broccoli raab was expertly sautéed, retaining just enough bite. The pear upside-down cake capped the night off perfectly. I can’t even remember how much I ate, but I know I left my table at one point to hunt for more.
Chef Peternell enjoyed the dinner as well, adding, “It was a treat to see people eating my food.” Of his experience collaborating with Yale Dining, Peternell said, “I feel very honored that they chose the dishes that they did.”
Dinner in Commons is always special. Sure the food was good, but mostly I went for the ambiance. Whether it’s the menu, or the service, there’s something incredibly “throwback” about the whole experience. As I ate, I imagined how many generations of Yalies had sat precisely where I was sitting. What did they talk about? How was the food 50 years ago? These questions are important — how many schools could evoke such ponderings from a hungry teenager? So thanks Commons, for the nostalgia and for a fun time.