University of Guelph economists predict grocery store competition will slow price increase
Canadians can expect some relief in food prices in the next year, according to a report by two University of Guelph economists.
The study, released Monday, predicts that retail food prices will rise 2 per cent in 2012, a modest increase compared to the 4.3 per cent pace of current food inflation. The price of meat, fresh vegetables and baked goods could rise up to 3 per cent, but the increase is small compared to what Canadians have endured in the past. In 2011, meat rose 5 per cent, fruit rose 6 per cent and baked good rose 7 per cent. Fresh vegetables topped the list with a 10 per cent increase.
The study notes that the opening of new grocery stores—specifically Wal-Mart Canada’s planned crop of super-centres and Target’s Canadian debut in 2013—will keep competition between stores high and slow food prices from increasing. Canadians spend an average of 10 per cent of their household budget on food.
Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean of research and graduate studies at Guelph’s College of Management and Economics, co-wrote the study with Guelph economics professor Francis Tapon. Charlebois told The Globe and Mail the modest increase will give budget-conscious consumers a break.
“The Canadian consumer will benefit from what will likely happen in the next couple of years in the food distribution sector,” he said. “There will likely be a price war.”
If you’re living on a scurvy diet of raisin bread and Stove Top Stuffing, Maclean’s is here to help
Four 21 year-old University of Toronto undergraduate students are gathered around the table in their Woodsworth College residence’s communal kitchen on a recent Friday night inspecting a bounty of fresh vegetables. “Leeks!” shouts Tingting Zhang, a psychology and neuroscience major who could point out the difference between a ganglia and an axon in her sleep, but takes childlike delight in recognizing the ubiquitous vegetable before her roommates do. Karen Sohn, an economics and psychology major, holds a bunch of thin grass-like spears. “Chives?” It’s more of a question than an answer. Aaron Shapland, who studies Middle Eastern civilization and geographical information systems, takes the easy road and correctly identifies the lone red onion. Meanwhile, the bag of baby arugula stumps Dorin Manase, who studies biology and computer science. In fact, they’re all baffled. “Is that leaves?” asks Tingting. “It tastes like nuts.” In an age when all things gastronomic are featured front and centre in television, movies and blogs, you might think this bunch would be more food-savvy. But as Karen pops a yellow-coloured cherry tomato into her mouth, she confesses, “you couldn’t find four people who make more disgusting food.”
Maclean’s is here to help. We’re armed with three simple recipes, for a soup, pasta and mussels. All require just one pot, minimal ingredients and extremely basic kitchen know-how. Our mission is to get these four students eating better fare than Stove Top Stuffing, pasta topped with ketchup, and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup poured on top of a microwaved chicken breast, “Chicken à la King”: staple student meals from the 1990s. Surely times have changed.
Nobu Adilman, actor, writer, and one of the hosts of the Food Network’s Food Jammers, who graduated from Halifax’s Dalhousie in 1995, says, “It’s a matter of having only so many minutes in a day. You’ve got so much s–t flying at you and you don’t want to spend all that time on cooking. So you just eat to soak up the booze.”
Most students juggle full course loads, part-time jobs and extracurricular activities, which doesn’t leave a lot of free time to visit farmers’ markets, let alone plan a week’s worth of meals. Luckily, in downtown Toronto there are other options: “I don’t know if you saw the hotdog vendor across the street, but she’s going to be my best friend next week during exams,” says Aaron as he chops an onion. Dorin, who just finished an exam, ate cereal for his last three meals, while Tingting polished off an entire loaf of raisin bread yesterday: “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, just in my room,” she says. “I didn’t even use a plate because I was cramming: I had two assignments due.”
Bestselling cookbook author Bonnie Stern, who also runs a Toronto cooking school, has a brighter outlook on students’ eating habits. “They’re much more savvy than they used to be because of the Food Network. They love that feeling of making something—the excitement of it. It’s very cool now.” She ought to know: for the last 15 years her school has offered a university survival class for students leaving home for the first time. “They do have a short attention span so we try to just do one class and then pack it full.” One of the most popular recipes is an Asian-inspired salad dressing, named after her daughter Anna, “who went through all of university without eating a salad.”
Not all university students are clueless come dinnertime. Amanda Garbutt, 22, has been preparing meals since her first year at McGill University in 2006. “I would whip up something in the floor’s kitchen and no one else could even fry an egg.” Soon she was teaching her roommate basic kitchen fundamentals. “We’d buy identical ingredients and split the stove in half and she’d take the left side and I would take the right and we’d make identical meals.” Friends started coming over to watch. “They’d bring wine and it became a social event. And then I came up with BYOI, bring your own ingredients, and I would pick a recipe—a risotto, stew or soup—and assign everyone an ingredient to bring and it would end up being very cost-effective, and we’d all take turns stirring and chopping. It was fun.”
April Engelberg, also 22, met Amanda on their first day at McGill and came up with the idea of filming these sessions. The result was The Hot Plate, a show launched through TV McGill, the University’s student-run television station, in the fall of 2008. Engelberg and Garbutt, who graduated this May, are now developing The Hot Plate’s website, which features about a dozen instructional videos for simple dinners, and their cookbook, which comes out this month.
Like Stern, Engelberg has “noticed a massive trend toward students caring more about cooking. It’s cool to say last night I made risotto, and people are always taking pictures of their food and posting them.” Still, Garbutt says, “Some students go for the McGill pizza down the street. ‘Two bucks? I can do that for breakfast, lunch and dinner until I get scurvy.’ I actually know someone who got scurvy from a pure mac and cheese diet.”
Back in the Maclean’s kitchen, so far scurvy-free, we’ve hit a few snags. Tingting discloses that they don’t have a cheese grater. “I usually use a potato peeler,” she says. There’s also no measuring cup—no measuring device of any sort. More surprising is the absence of a colander from the kitchen of this pasta-loving group. “We use our hands,” says Tingting. “It’s not what you’re supposed to do?” When her three roommates cast steely glares in her direction, she adds, “We wash our hands first.” “Welcome to college,” says Aaron.
After they devour the leek and potato soup, which Tingting says “tastes like it’s from a restaurant,” the pasta is successfully drained, sans colander, and tossed simply with extra virgin olive oil, ricotta salata, cherry tomatoes and basil. “Mmm,” they hum. We do a second version with a handful of the arugula mixed in—a clever way to sneak a salad into a main dish. “I like it,” says Dorin, who’d earlier confessed to usually eating just meat. “I was skeptical. But it’s really good.”
The last recipe for curried coconut mussels, courtesy of Chatelaine, requires the most effort out of our three dishes—that is if you consider ripping out a few beards from the shells laborious. Not only are these bovines cheap (Chatelaine’s food editor, Claire Tansey, says they usually cost about two dollars for 250 grams) but they’re also high in zinc, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Pair them with a buttered baguette and call it dinner.
The four students gather round two kilos of steaming mussels piled high in a stainless steel bowl; not an ideal serving vessel for hot food, but it worked in a pinch. They all like mussels, but this was their first time making them. It’s also the first meal these roommates have shared since moving in together this September, although you’d be hard-pressed to tell: as they dunk their bread into the sauce and devour dinner, they talk and laugh as though this were a typical evening. “We should definitely do this again next Friday night,” says Aaron. Mission accomplished.
How to be a student locavore
Top tips from Canadian local food movement leaders Sarah Elton, author of Locavore, and Nick Saul, executive director of The Stop, a Toronto-based organization that strives to make healthy food available to everyone through community building, cooking, gardening, and food banks.
Get organized: “Students are great at pushing policy forward and getting their administrations to change,” says Elton, food writer and columnist for CBC Radio’s Here and Now in Toronto. She suggests students push to get “the university to have food procurement protocol that guarantees a certain percentage of food comes from local and sustainable farms.” Which is exactly what Local Food Plus, a non-profit organization committed to creating local sustainable food systems, did when they first teamed up with Aramark food services in 2005: a partnership that resulted in 10 per cent of the food served at U of T’s Aramark venues being certified local and sustainable, a figure they hope to increase to 25 per cent this year.
Buy in bulk: “It’s an affordable way of buying local,” says Elton. “Or buy directly from farmers. If a group of people share a purchase, it can ease the financial burden of a one time pay-out.”
Start or join a co-op: That’s what Elton did in university. “Choose one that focuses on buying local and sustainable food. I was able to buy great food at a price I could afford.”
Ask questions: Nick Saul of The Stop says, “Do a bit of a food audit on campus; that could extend to asking, ‘Why do we have these crappy pop machines?’ Or, ‘Why is the cantina serviced by these big bad companies?’ Doing a bit of muckraking in that sector is really important and can make a big change fast.”
Start a cooking collective or garden: “The food movement is pretty robust,” says Saul, “and I can’t imagine it not finding its way onto campuses, whether that’s more individually expressed through a house on campus where everyone is interested in local, organic, sustainable food and they figure out a cooking collective, or they take over a green space and have collective gardens or individual plots—that could easily make a pretty big mark.”
CJ’s is bright, scenic and friendly. But the food? Bring your own.
The University of Lethbridge boasts some of the most stunning views in academic Canada, and its cafeteria, at the south end of the Arthur Erickson-designed University Hall, is no exception. Here a bank of windows looks out upon the city’s coulies – rippling, khaki-coloured gulches that clamber up out of Oldman River. Hence the eatery’s name, Coulee Junction, or CJs. Eat here, by all means: it’s bright, scenic and friendly.
But wait, did I forget to mention the food? Bring your own.
That or stick with the Fresh Inspirations Salad Bar and the selection of ready-made sandwiches and salads from CJ¹s refrigerated Simply To Go corner. Our salad, with a refreshing cucumber-dill dressing atop real boiled eggs, carrots and brocoli, was rudimentary but functional. Ditto the croissant ham and swiss, an old standby with a surprisingly good sweet mustard, a fresh roll, spinach and nice tomato.
Stay clear, however, of the rice stir-fries, which a cook will render into goop before your very eyes; if consistency is not a priority, the tasteless shrimp, in this case, and oddly aromatic celery, ought to be enough to command evasive maneuvres. So too the sweet-and-sour sauce, which is either a balance of flavours so perfect that it becomes invisible or – more likely in our view – a red-coloured placebo.
An order of oven-fried cod parmesan, available that day from the International Entrées counter, reignites an old conviction that fish and cheese combinations should remain as taboo as sibling sex (a side of rice, meanwhile, tasted like grandfather¹s closet, and the carrots were ghastly).
The River Rock Grill’s cheese burger was flavourful but greasy. The chicken souvlaki, served in a spinach wrap, was too luridly green and brashly orange for our taste – it’s for good reason David Lynch never became a chef – and the fresh onions tended to over-awe the ensemble; still, it served its purpose.
Finally, a brownie cake – at least, this was our interpretation of the effort – was of a mood-altering sweetness, and would likely be deemed illegal in the state of Alabama. In Alberta, however, the firecracker snap of the desert’s multicoloured sprinkles made us feel as though we were 18 again; then we immediately crashed and consulted the Internet for Keith Richards-approved remedy.
Little could prepare the intrepid diner for the travails of this brutal “café”
Little prepares the intrepid diner, newly landed in Edmonton, for the travails of the University of Alberta cafeteria. Located at points throughout the sprawling campus–we ate at CAB Café, in the basement of the Central Academic Building–they are industrial feeding machines, capable of efficiency but not delicacy. The results suck, combining national outlets like Burger King (probably your best bet, though good luck with your heart in a few years should you come to rely on it) with no-name fast-fooderies like Hot & Fresh Pizza 73.
At the latter, the server looked genuinely stunned at our request: a simple slice of Hawaiian. The petroleum-product cheese and grease made it initially tricky to unglue the pizza from our cardboard, V-shaped plate. Then a bite made us question the advisability of the project entirely. That unmistakable, arsenic tang of false tomato, the candy-store pineapple, beef jerky pepperoni and overall slovenliness–it all pleases not. Hot & Fresh? We doubt it.
A breaded veal cutlet with “potato” (french fries, actually) and “vegetable” (an unholy coagulation of green beans) from the Mediterranean Spice counter, generously slathered in “gravy,” made us consider actually resigning from our positions as food reviewers with Maclean’s rather than continue the horror. The meat, heavily salted, was likely not meat at all but some kind of substitute. The beans appeared to have been regurgitated by Oliver, of Charles Dickens fame, then preserved for our present delectation. The fries were waterlogged with gravy. We chose not to sample the mushrooms. A pasta concoction, meanwhile, from the salad bar, was like faux Hollandaise, solidified.
Only Wok’s Cooking, the caf’s Chinese stop, surprised–but only in comparison with the CAB Café’s other slop. A dark, thick, MSG-laden sauce, good for both noodles or for tarring a road, put the ummmmmm into umami (though we knew we would pay later in the form of the sweats and hot flashes). The noodles were gluey, but not inedible. The broccoli was real and wholesome, as were the onions, carrots and bean sprouts.
For dessert, a blueberry-poppy seed loaf, encrusted on top with icing and raw oatmeal, might have been better had the oatmeal not pierced the flesh of our gums. With luck, the antioxidizing action of the blueberries (pray for us they are real) may ultimately help us survive this meal.
This cheap and cheerful deli serves the culinary equivalent of the United Nations
With a university population as diverse as UBC’s, it’s probably difficult to run a cafeteria that caters to the tastes of every student. The Delly, a family-owned business that has been in the school’s student union building for 35 years, has decided to solve that problem by serving the culinary equivalent of the United Nations.
We started with the Thai chicken lemongrass soup, which had a surprising amount of heat, amazing flavour and, perhaps most importantly, was less than $3. This was followed by a selection of baked snacks, including a good but unremarkable chicken samosa, a cheap and delicious beef jerk patty and a huge vegetarian roti that was on the dry side but was a steal for under $4.
The halal lamb curry, which owner Nizar Rajan says he introduced in order to cater to the university’s Muslim population, had big chunks of fragrant, spicy meat and was served on fluffy white rice for under $7. For a dollar more, the butter chicken didn’t live up to expectations. Both a freshly made gyro with homemade tzatziki and a hearty chicken salad sandwich on pumpernickel bread were a great deal at under $5.
The Delly’s secret weapon must be its small bustling army of sandwich-preparing women.
Dessert was surprisingly delectable. We chose a triple-berry crumble square made with fresh fruit (including some juicy rhubarb) and crunchy topping along with a rich chocolate lava cake filled with melt-in-the-mouth bittersweet chocolate. Both could be confidently served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at a fancy restaurant, and at the stunningly cheap price of $1.67, I’m already thinking of going back for a few more.
Too bad Jell-O isn’t a food group
If I ever again find myself in the cafeteria at Kwantlen’s Surrey campus, I’ll try to remember to come armed with Canada’s Food Guide. I’ll also be sure to eat before arrival. The food—I use that term loosely—was horrendous.
We had a hard time choosing our meals since nothing looked particularly appetizing. Three pans of pizza had already sold out and were obviously not going to be replaced any time soon. Beside me, a student picked up a tray of plastic-encased nachos, stared, and warily put it back on the rack, like a man handling a bomb. Next to the industrial nacho cheese pump sat a clear-fronted fridge pimping three colours of noxious energy beverage.
The broccoli and cheese soup might have once been great, but the vat was scraped clean. The only good thing one could say about the oily beef and barley stew is that it was hot. A veggie burger with Swiss cheese for $4.20 turned out to be nothing more than a vehicle for white bread. The bottom of the veggie patty featured four bitter burnt stripes from the grill and the cheese was wafer-thin.
The same could be said for the glamorous-sounding chicken BLT with pesto, which set expectations high at over $6. It turned out to be 80 per cent white bread, 10 per cent burnt chicken and 10 per cent BLT.
I thought I had taken a carrot muffin, but the tray was mislabelled and I got a dubious cinnamon roll muffin instead. The best part of the meal was the overpriced Jell-O cup for $2.50. It was flavourful and familiar. Too bad Jell-O isn’t a food group.
Sampling the chocolate chunk brownie was like eating the flesh of a diabetic
The Den, just downstairs from the Black Lounge—the other student union-run haunt—is in decor and atmosphere everything you’d ever want in a campus pub: a little rank (stale beer is my personal napalm in the morning!), a little dingy (cinder-block ceilings are big in Manhattan!), but it’s still cleaner than your dorm. Perfect, then, for a little booze-fuelled MIA action. And the food is some of the best, most reasonably priced stuff on campus.
The Den Reloaded, a classic half-pound burger featuring sautéed mushrooms, bacon and a good dollop of cheddar and mozzarella, tasted authentically of the grill (though the bun had wilted by the time it arrived at table and was too soggy for our liking). A spinach salad with goat cheese and strawberries benefited from that potpourri effect of rich cheese and wonderfully fresh, sweet fruit—film majors, you will find it as ephemeral as happiness in an Ingmar Bergman flick—but was too stingy on the orange balsamic vinaigrette.
The chicken Kiev, a special on this day, was an unfortunate H-bomb of herbs and multiplex butter. The innards exploded across the plate like ooze from an Alberta tailings pond. It was accompanied by hardy, green broccoli and a delightful barley risotto that was the best dish of the day.
Yet the Den did not fare well with its desserts. Mother taught us warm apple crumble should be crunchy, so lay off the microwave. New York cheesecake? Coated in a heavy treacle of fruity goo, it had the flavour and consistency of raw cookie dough. Sampling the chocolate chunk brownie, meanwhile, with its thin rivets of raspberry icing, was like eating the flesh of a diabetic. Sweet teeth stay clear!
This may be a food-court mecca, but a discerning eater can still do well
Mount Royal College is a food-court mecca. The school where former Alberta premier Ralph Klein sometimes teaches journalism, it is a place of Subways, Tim Hortons and Edo Japans—a fast-food chain that has as much business claiming its noodles bare a resemblance to the cuisine of the Chrysanthemum Throne as Klein probably has lecturing impressionable youth. But both Klein and the fast-food providers enjoy hostage audiences on this out-of-the-way campus. Still, the discerning eater can do well at the Herb n Market food court, a nicely varied selection of inexpensive meals cooked, for the most part, sur place, courtesy of food-services giant Sodexho (whose appearance in Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me we’ll leave unmentioned).
Find real ham on the bone, carved to order, at Stacks, a sandwich station that also offers grilled paninis lathered in a beguiling, if salty, red pepper-infused butter (we had ours with ham and asparagus). The crusts wilt quickly at Pandini’s, a pasta and pizza stop (learn from my errors and do not settle for what’s languished too long on the counter), though the marinara sauce is sufficiently zippy and the cheese provides a wholesome mouth sensation. We fared less well with the lasagna, a dish whose layers ought never to feel like cadaver skin.
At the unfortunately named Mein Bowl, the requisite experiment in Chinese food, real broccoli is available. The Kung Pao chicken boasted processed meat as tender as tofu—a turn-off, in our view—but earned points with its generous heaping of red peppers. Note to the kitchen staff: fried rice must be fried. For no discernible reason, the egg rolls were delicious, though freed of its fried skin the filling tasted not unlike Earl Grey tea.
Best of all, in that it did not leave us in an MSG-induced psychosis, was the Cyclone Salad station, a bar of fresh greens, proteins, bacon bits and dressings slapped together by a server according to taste. Ours, on a foundation of hardy romaine and sprinkled with sunflower seeds and a refreshing wasabi dressing, was the best part of our day.
We cried uncle after two bites of soggy potato wedges and faded, mushy vegetables
Riddell Hall at the University of Winnipeg is a clean, spacious and comfortable place to eat. The room is carpeted, decorated with art, and the lighting is soft but not dim. The room is filled with round tables that, unlike the rectangular rows of the typical cafeteria, invite conversation with friends. And despite this pleasant welcome to the university’s main eatery, our experience was dismal.
Meal options at the grill were mostly limited to the usual burgers and chicken fingers, though they did offer a herb chicken special. Our rosemary seasoned entree consisted not of a tender chicken breast, but of a drumstick, wing and small thigh. It was lukewarm and tough. The potato wedges were soggy, and the vegetables were a faded mush vaguely resembling broccoli, peas and carrots. Two bites and we cried uncle.
The sandwich station held more promise. You could choose from grilled chicken, tuna, tofu, egg salad, turkey or chicken salad. It was offered on ciabatta or pita bread, or wrapped in a tortilla. The toppings looked bright, fresh and appetizing. But our appetites were quickly disappointed. The cook coughed into her arm only an inch or two from her hands. Hands that she subsequently used to massage our lunch. Kind of defeats the purpose of wearing gloves? No?
Also promising were fresh fruit smoothies made from scratch. We ordered ours raspberry, but it was not to be. The server explained that she had never prepared one before. From her expression it was clear that she wanted us to forget about it. We obliged.
The one upside to lunch at Riddell Hall was the Greek salad. The iceberg lettuce was crunchy and green. It was full of toppings and they weren’t stingy on the feta. A good offering, but not enough to absolve this cafeteria of its many faults.
Students seem happy enough — perhaps because the next-closest grub is at the Kelowna airport
Considering the entire serving section of this cafeteria could fit into some walk-in closets, UBC-Okanagan’s main dining hall offers a passable variety of chow. In addition to the expected burgers and fries, we had the choice of pizza, semi-made-to-order pasta or stir-fry, the featured entree (turkey dinner was on), pre-made sandwiches and sushi, or a small but fresh-looking salad bar complete with organic alternatives. The students crammed into the compact kitchen during the dinner hour seemed happy enough with the options—perhaps because the closest grub to the isolated campus is at the Kelowna airport.
We steered clear of the shining pre-made sushi after noting an Ontario address on the label and instead ordered small servings of pasta and turkey, which both turned out substantial. The gravy-smothered turkey ($6.99) was good enough, and came with nondescript steamed veggies and surprisingly palatable scalloped potatoes. The tasteless ground beef in my pasta—pre-boiled rotini with rosé sauce for $4.89—seemed like an odd choice in an otherwise acceptable dish. Extra points for real parmesan.
After waiting about 20 minutes while a cook slowly wiped dirty pans and refilled containers with pre-cooked chicken, we were finally presented with a shrimp stir-fry; halal chicken is also available. The red Thai sauce turned out to be the highlight of the dish ($6.99), with its rubbery shrimp and uncooked broccoli and cabbage.
Feasting on a slice of four-cheese pizza ($3.99), I was overcome with a sensation of familiarity. The bready crust and greasy cheese evoked memories of cafeteria meals past. And looking around, I realized that we were all taking in an archetypal dining experience that is reproduced at schools across the continent, by cafeteria conglomerates such as Aramark. The sole selection that lent UBC-O’s offerings distinction was fresh fruit advertised as being from presumably local Gamble Farms, a shout-out to the campus’s Okanagan Valley locale.
Uninspired—but does the job.
A traditional, “perfectly decent” lunch with a few deft touches, like grilled vegetables and a panini press
Two words: old school. This is the most scholarly place either of our Friday afternoon party had ever eaten lunch, and the oak-panelled walls, cathedral ceiling, chandeliers, long wooden tables and portraits of history’s provosts at U of T’s most prestigious college were enough to elicit flashbacks of McGill’s Douglas Hall cafeteria—home, in the mid-1990s, to what must have been the most godawful cafeteria food in Canada. But as it turns out, Trinity’s somewhat outdated facilities are in a totally different league.
From the make-your-own sandwich bar one of us put grilled chicken and grilled vegetables on marble rye and dispatched it to the panini grill. “Perfectly decent,” its creator pronounced. It really is amazing what two hot pieces of metal can do for the humble sandwich. The salad bar won’t set anyone’s world on fire but offered crisp veggies to go with mixed greens, a coleslaw that was creamy without being goopy and a primavera-style pasta salad with chickpeas that was downright delicious.
The two soups on offer were a tasty and nutritious mixed vegetable and a clam chowder that, while bland, actually contained clams—no small thing in an institutional setting. The only misstep was the most promising-looking offering: made-to-order falafel. Consuming the cold, crumbly patties was a little like chewing on a mouthful of birdshot. And while dessert pickings seemed a little slim—we hadn’t had applesauce in a while, that’s for darn sure—it became apparent as we left that we’d clumsily overlooked an ice cream station. Damn.
There was no hot food on this day, and nothing remotely fancy—just a traditional, conscientiously prepared lunch with a few deft touches, like those grilled vegetables and the panini press. Those who demand variety might be frustrated. But if you’ve enrolled at a college that still requires students to regularly wear academic gowns in 2008, perhaps you shouldn’t be expecting sushi in the dining hall.
By the end, I’m no longer hungry but not remotely satisfied. An educational experience? Perhaps.
It is both exactly like and entirely different from how I remember it: despite aggressive colonization by fast-food franchises, the University of Ottawa cafeteria still sprawls across the second floor of the main student building, surviving, somehow, despite the onslaught of raw capitalism.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t all too aware of the competition: unlike the grimly utilitarian service counters of old, you now choose from food stations emblazoned with slightly desperate monikers that almost, but not quite, sound like universally recognizable brand names. Missing in action—at least, as far as I could tell—was that staple of university days of old, the poutine. In fact, unless I managed to miss that counter, there were no french fries on the menu at all, even in their slightly less artery-clogging natural state.
Deprived, then, of what had seemed the perfect excuse to dig my way to the bottom of a plate of fries and gravy, I went to the other extreme: “Extreme Pita.” It was a decision I would soon come to regret. After placing my order—a chicken caesar, small, to go—I stepped back to watch the pita construction process.
It was at that point, however, that it became clear that, despite their professed extremism in pita-related matters, these wrappers had only the faintest appreciation for the adaptability of even the most unassuming pita: rather than rip it carefully down the seam, thus allowing it to be stuffed, then rewrapped, and optionally rolled in tinfoil for added portability, the woman making my sandwich simply tore a small hole in one end, and shovelled in the filling, until it resembled a half-inflated balloon, with bits of chicken protruding from the sides. After jamming it carelessly in a loose-fitting plastic bag, she handed it over. “Can you cut it in half?” I asked, a request that was met with blank confusion.
I end up forking out $5.97 total—definitely on the high end for what was, fundamentally, a tragically misguided wrap. Leaving aside the logistical challenges involved in actually eating the thing, the sandwich itself is passable—just—the chicken grilled sufficiently, and without distinguishing characteristics, bad or good; the bacon limp and cold; the croutons too crunchy. The pita runs out before the innards, leaving me to consume the last bit of lettuce with my fork, and by the end, I’m no longer hungry, but not remotely satisfied. An educational experience? Perhaps.
School’s booming culinary program is reflected in fantastic fine dining
Interest in George Brown College’s culinary program has soared in recent years, and if its sleek new downtown Toronto restaurant is an accurate reflection of the curriculum, it’s not hard to see why.
There’s nothing even remotely scholastic about the setting—a bright, modern and minimalist space that gains warmth from the exposed brick and girders of the restored factory building, and as a centrepiece an open kitchen that offers no shelter at all for the team of student chefs. (Video cameras up the ante even further, broadcasting their work to flat-screen televisions.) And while it must be said that we took lunch at a mostly empty Chefs’ House before its official opening, and that the almost comically attentive staff obviously knew we were representatives of the media, the food was nothing short of terrific.
Cafeteria nosh this isn’t. Starters: a classic combination of citrus-cured salmon on a crispy potato pancake with honey mustard sauce, and grilled baby octopus—unexpectedly cold, but unmistakably fresh—atop a savoury white navy bean salad, vinegar and basil and red onion cutting through a healthy glug of olive oil, a dish that would have been a stunner even without the mollusc. For mains, one of us chose a boldly and complexly spiced chicken biryani over perfectly al dente rice, served with hard-boiled egg to cool the palate. The other of us was shamelessly drawn to the confit of pork belly with sautéed shiitake mushrooms and Napa cabbage, and could not have been more pleased with it: sticky, not crispy, five-spiced crackling atop that melt-in-your-mouth meat only a slow-cooked pig can deliver. The taste lingers in the memory for days. Desserts—cold crepes with mascarpone and raspberry coulis, and a phyllo dough apple strudel—were also very good, though not quite as remarkable.
And the damage? $18 for a prix fixe lunch or $39 for dinner, all less than 10 minutes’ walk from Toronto’s financial district. Competing restaurateurs might ruefully wonder what bargains they could offer with a limitless, eager supply of free labour, but a buck’s a buck. If downtown expense accounts shrink in time with the stock market, George Brown might just have a gold mine on its hands. Heck, the lunch bill isn’t much beyond a student’s splurge zone.
What is it with university cafeterias and overpriced produce?
Located in the centre of McMaster’s north residence quad, the Commons is not the easiest place to find, but following the crowd will get you there. After dodging a man in a bunny suit driving a circus-clown bike (ah, engineering rituals), we enter—and find ourselves in the middle of a traffic jam. The problem: a huge lineup at Chef Troy’s popular pasta and stir-fry station.
I decide to check out the rest of the cafeteria’s selection. Immediately after Chef Troy’s, there are four other stations serving sandwiches, Asian food (“Pacific Rim”), grill items (burgers and fries) and “Healthy Choice.”
In the centre of the area is a salad bar, which offers fresh food, but unfortunately at a premium price. What is it with university cafeterias and overpriced produce?
Being on a budget, I set out to cover the government’s food groups at the lowest possible cost. (My preferred food groups, which I will forgo today, consist of grease, sugar, caffeine, and chicken fingers.) That means the sub counter for me. I order up a 12-inch turkey sub with cheddar and veggies for $5.50. It is well stacked, and though the bread is not Subway quality, you get more sub in one here than two there. I walk back to Troy’s, where the lineup is now out the door. I get salad, a fair-sized chunk of salmon and rice for $10. Pricey, but salmon ain’t cheap.
I stop at Pacific Rim and pick up more rice, noodles and chicken balls: $6.
And before leaving, I grab a garlic bread.
The verdict: the chicken balls could use a little more chicken and the garlic bread tasted like it had soaked overnight in a barrel of garlic butter. The beverage selection is also limited; forget about getting not-from-concentrate or without-artificial-flavour. But the noodles, salmon, and rice were great, and the sub was excellent. Overall very good, especially compared to other schools.
“It’s prison food” said one student. We found no reason to dispute that
To pronounce the “Marquis” in Marquis Hall in anything like the French way (marquis, silent “s,” connoting nobility) is to mark oneself out as an outsider on campus. Markwiss, they say here, and it’s a good thing too, since no one should mistake the food in the Garry Room, which serves the nearby residences of Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle halls, with anything of noble or superior taste. “It’s prison food,” one student complains, and we found no reason to dispute that judgment, even if the 1964-vintage building offers plenty of natural light and delicious views of the greystone Gothic campus.
But onward and food-ward. A serving of the kitchen’s garlic pork balls—deep-fried, with trans-fat aftertaste and that unmistakable bouquet of factory floor—was awful. A plate of pasta primavera, swimming in a packaged, paste-like roux with bits of tasteless carrot and deflowered broccoli (who knew green stuff could taste so unwholesome?), proved almost inedible. A rice side dish managed the Zen feat of white grains looking just like regular gohan but tasting like sawdust.
In the lasagna bolognese, at last, we found a tasty, generously portioned balm, with flavourful tomato and beef sauce and a passable melted-cheese roof. The jambalaya chicken was also not too offensive, with a nice little Creole heat. A side of corn, however, recalled the multiplex’s sickening I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-real-butter aroma. We were immediately diagnosed with diabetes after a bite of the Nanaimo bar, featuring a cracker base apparently made of real hardened artery. With the 10-meal-a-week plan going for some $2,600 a semester, food quality at the Garry Room is a disaster.
Yet, just a few doors down from Marquis, in the Arts Building—with a view of the stunning, castle-like Thorvaldson building—is one of the university’s many buffeterias, little gatherings of deli, salad and burrito counters dealing in the currency of ultra-fresh veggies and otherwise real food.
Though not on the meal plan, the fare is inexpensive, tasty—and a much better bet.
If you’re a vegetarian, eat Halal, or are a chicken-fingers-only type, you’ll leave full and happy
Mudies is tucked away almost cove-like in the community centre of the University of Waterloo’s Village 1 residence. But it is instantly recognizable as an eatery catering to a wide variety of tastes and diets.
Whether you’re a vegetarian or observe Halal; are allergic to gluten or trying to eat healthy; or are a chicken-fingers-only type, there is an honest effort at Mudies to send you away full.
Alongside the usual assortment of dishes cleverly prefaced with the word “veggie,” Mudies serves hot vegetarian specials every day. We opted for the veggie calzone. It was chock full of peppers, mushrooms and onions.
However, it still managed to be excessively doughy, and the pizza sauce was nothing too exciting. More garlic or even more standard pizza spices could have helped—still, it was a solid step up from freezer-aisle pizza pops.
Next to the veggie station were dishes that could be more honestly called healthy. You can order yogourt with your choice of crumbled graham, granola and fresh fruit. We settled on a pita with extra beef and all the (reasonably fresh) toppings that could be crammed in. The cooks are friendly and don’t know the meaning of the word “stingy.” I also ordered a strawberry milkshake: though lacking in thickness, it actually tasted a bit like strawberries.
This being Waterloo, home to the biggest Oktoberfest outside of Germany, we figured we’d see if the city’s reputation for sausage spills into its university cafeterias. Yup. The spicy sausage was juicy and cooked right, crisp but not shrivelled. You could even see the variety of spices after biting into it. Unfortunately, the sausage was served on a bun that was so dry it cut my throat. This is all the more disappointing given that Mudies advertises its in-house bakery!
For the refined palate there was also a lemon chicken dish, not to mention a tuna casserole topped with whole rippled chips. While most desserts at Mudies are covered and kept to the side, they had cheesecake uncovered and on display. Too bad. What might at some point have been a perfectly good piece of cheesecake had developed a thick, chewy skin, leaving us wondering exactly what we were consuming. An unfortunate end to a mostly satisfying experience.
Guelph’s worst food can go head to head with many other universities’ best
Guelph has a reputation for food: the Creelman Market Place, for example, has long been seen as a model of what on-campus meals should be: fresh, healthy, hearty. But I wondered: if Guelph’s best is so good, how bad is Guelph’s worst? Waiting for a bus to the university, I informally poll students. Where, I ask, is the worst food? They all answer: “Prairie Café.”
Prairie is attached to the concrete fortress that is South Residence, where over 1,800 students live, most of them frosh. The food service area has no natural light, the ceiling is low and there’s not much room to move around.
There is a “home cooked” counter, a short-order grill, and Pita Pit. The fruit and vegetable selection is basic, and an equivalent-sized space is dedicated to (overpriced) bulk candy. I order fish and chips, and the lunch special, “Lentil Chickpea Casserole.” The fish and chips slide around on the plate and I lose most of the fries. The server gives me a full plate of the casserole. It is huge; I can’t image eating all of it in one sitting. The prices are a bit steep at $6.17 for the fish and chips alone. However, residents pay only $4.94, and that’s a steal.
After paying, we enter the dining hall. What a difference. It is by far the best-looking dining hall of any institution I’ve visited. There are large windows and skylights everywhere. The seating feels upscale, with lots of booths. The materials absorb sound and the lighting is soft. This is definitely the place for relaxing and socializing. We end up staying for an hour and a half.
And the food? It’s not perfect. How much batter can one fish have? The fish was good, once you got to it, but encased in a batter twice its size. The fries were horrible; I can make better fries, and I barely know how to boil water. But the casserole was excellent: it was simply one of the best dishes I’ve had at a cafeteria. Guelph’s worst food can go head to head with many other universities’ best.
Good, honest grub that only occasionally sinks to the culinary doldrums of university eating
The Alberta Room: such a grandiloquent name may leave you—Hey, you there, going through the remand bin at Goodwill!—wondering whether this is a place whose dress code and price range were designed for tuxedoed oil barons. Not to worry. The University of Calgary’s main dining hall, in a tent-like building called, imaginatively enough, The Dining Centre, doesn’t ask you to be anything you’re not. It’s just about good, honest grub. Only occasionally does the food sink to those culinary doldrums so much associated with university dining—a perhaps necessary echo of the Stalinist concrete ennui that surrounds the diner through the windows, i.e. the U of C campus.
Well-organized, with a constellation of food stations across the floor—grill, pasta trattoria, fruit and salad bar—diners have a lot to choose from.
To start off, a gourmet Swiss mushroom burger with fries. The latter aren’t exactly Belgian frites, but the burger is a delight––ful surprise—juicy, with all kinds of fresh tomato and run-at-the-corner-of-your-mouth dill pickle. A veal-stuffed tortellini amatriciana is less successful, with a consistency of dense cake and nothing more than pinhead de––posits of veal buried within. Though bland, it’s not altogether unsatisfying once we add a zing of freshly grated Parmesan. The accompanying spinach salad, with cherry tomatoes and cucumber, is delicious.
The bowl of fish chowder doesn’t exactly exceed expectations. A viscous skin, pallid colour and the vague sense that something has died beneath the surface adds to the effect. An apple lentil curry also missed the mark: at first one’s mouth embraced those earthy curried tones; a second spoonful was less curry, all earth. Side orders of parsley boiled potatoes and veggies still tasted of the cardboard they were packed in prior to freezing.
And so what if the server doesn’t know what a kaiser is? The made-to-order deli sandwich—ham and cheese on a toasted bun—was delicious, full of crunchy-fresh bell peppers. The fruit stick was less so. On the day we visited, this dessert and others fell into the “fish chowder” category: eat it just to say you have—and, for those of us who have lived in Quebec, to recall the engineering feats pioneered by industrial pastry chefs in that province, circa 1962.
Hits the spot with great prices and enough choices to keep even the most finicky rabbit happy
It’s somewhat fitting that en route to Village Greens, the all-vegetarian cafeteria at the University of Victoria, one must navigate herds of plump bunnies. While the resident rabbits mow down on the campus’s lush lawn outside, the rabbit food being served inside the student residence building is a pleasing introduction to the fare on offer at the school.
The featured item this day is a spicy red Thai stir-fry, and it doesn’t disappoint. A nice variety of fresh vegetables are cooked up and presented on a bed of noodles. The sauce is full of flavour, even if the ramen-style noodles are uninspired. One can chose a protein of either tofu, soy beef or prawns. (A word of warning to carnivores: the one-inch cubes of brown tofu can be intimidating.) At $3.50 (plus $2 for protein) this is one of the best values available.
Upstairs, the Cadboro South Dining Hall is the main food option for most UVic students. Those with a taste for the exotic will be disappointed: pasta is the chef’s favourite ingredient (with alfredo sauce, tomato sauce, or for added zing, linguine with prawns). The only Asian dish on offer, prepackaged sushi wrapped in plastic, should be avoided. But there are some cafeteria staples that come out ahead. The majestically named Baron of Beef sandwich from the grill should satisfy any hungry meat eater, especially when dipped in the accompanying jus. The featured item is chicken Parmesan; the side of veggies was well-prepared, and the breaded chicken got it right with a blend of crispiness and tenderness. Tons of cheese and sauce made this a standout.
The dining hall does offer pre-made sandwiches wrapped in plastic that are both dry and, at $3.50, overpriced. For an extra dollar, go to the Caps deli for a delicious, freshly made sandwich that would make Dagwood Bumstead drool.
Despite some rough spots, UVic’s residence eateries hit the spot with great prices and enough choices to keep even the most finicky rabbit happy.