Beyond mystery meat

If you can't convince your kid that college pays off in improved job prospects, intellectual satisfaction, and social skills, try this: fine-dining opportunities.

Fine dining? In the land of rubber burgers and limp broccoli? Of meals tailor-made for 1,000?

Take a moment to ponder the experience of a group of college chefs who gathered recently at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Their mission: to posit, debate, and defend theories about one of life's little mysteries, the late-adolescent palate.

University food services are straining to please a demanding group of students. For one thing, in this increasingly multicultural and well-traveled set, the "Asian pork chop" will no longer cut it on international night. Many American kids, meanwhile, are hot off the food-court options so prevalent in American high schools, where spice equals salt and branching out is choosing Taco Bell over McDonald's.

But that was high school. Pursue higher education, it turns out, and all of a sudden you're trading in those sesame-seed buns for bruschetta.

That's not all. Lars Kronmark, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., who conducts food-service workshops at colleges and universities around the country, says stir-fry and pasta are big. Grilling is hot. Vegetarianism is a top pick.

Mr. Kronmark's seminars allow him to work with school chefs who are aiming to have a little fun, grab the interest of several hundred students, and meet an endless stream of demands for "healthy" foods.

Kronmark concedes that fried chicken and fries aren't fossils yet.

One of his students told of the night she tried cajun-style food, only to find her campus littered with pizza boxes the next day.

But, Kronmark notes enthusiastically, "put a rotisserie chicken out with new potatoes roasted in olive oil...."

That's part of "exhibition cooking" - putting more of the process right in front of students, whether it's stir fry or grilling. It's a sign that innovation has moved well beyond the 1980s salad bar, in part because more graduates of culinary schools are finding their way onto campuses where the living is good and the hours are right. (Hint: Apply to schools in California.) Maybe it's a reassurance that your student has a crack at eating properly. Maybe it even explains that recent tuition hike.

Amelia Newcomb is the Learning editor. E-mail comments to newcomba@csps.com

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