Coming from the United States where profit comes before health 9 times out of 10, I have been conditioned to believe that food from a school cafeteria is innately bad. It’s this pizza nightmare where cheese whiz clouds any sort of potential for a nutritious meal. Where is the justice in that? Perhaps this is why I was so delightfully shocked to experience the ECLA kitchen. Justice, amongst other, more tangible things, is always served thanks to our spirited chef Stefan Will and sous chef Philipp Zieher. Stefan, hailing from Austria, is a self proclaimed “Rookie” at ECLA. Just rounding out his second year here, Stefan has completely redesigned the standards of our cafeteria’s product. Before this drastic change, Stefan said that the meals were comprised of “frozen food, instant powders,” and the ever dreaded “convenience puddings.” Stefan’s steps to transform the kitchen stem from the conviction of “no compromise,” the three pillars being “to cook fresh, to cook with experience, and to use mainly organic foods.”
From the very first day back in August, Stefan and Philip served up all sorts of serious treats. Organic yogurts? A fresh bounty of fruits and veggies? Lamb? GOOSE? Is this what ~love~ feels like??? I remember the days when some folks fairly assumed “haloumi” was a type of fish (haloumi, haddock, herring…right?). The ECLA cafeteria showed us the light; what was this salty, chewy sheep’s-milk cheese? What secrets did it hold? Why is its melting point so high? Are you telling me I can grill cheese? Grilled…cheese…woah. Still I find myself giddy to discover what’s for lunch every day. But can I be surprised by the quality of the food considering the incredibly high quality of the actual ingredients? Stefan, although having lived in Germany for the past 15 years working in different sectors of the food industry, boasts a mantra as if he has lived on a farm all his life: “being near to nature and connecting with the earth.” On the topic of his decision to utilize organic products, Stefan believes that the point is to “give something back to nature… something for the next generation: for my children, their children so we can live here on this planet. Yes, it’s a bit idealistic, but that’s the concept in my life, and here in the ECLA kitchen.”
In addition to all the purchased ingredients, Stefan makes use of the ECLA apple tree on Waldstrasse, the walnut tree next to the cafeteria, and he even boasts a small herb and pumpkin garden. At the Bard campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, students have created a large organic farm that sells its produce to the cafeteria and to the surrounding neighbors in the Hudson Valley. Stefan is a major advocate for self sufficiency and would warmly welcome a community garden at ECLA: “it’s important to know the process, to feel the earth. I think the project at Bard is a great one.” When he’s not busy unwinding with “the relaxing art of finding recipes in cookbooks,” you can find Stefan drawing inspiration for his recipes from “much communication with students, parents, children, people around me, visits in other countries and cultures, visits at the market, on farms, and from my years of experience with many different chefs.”
But perhaps it’s not only the food that makes the eating experience at ECLA such a treat. I’ve worked in several restaurants, and all of them seemed to share the common themes of high pressure and detestation for one’s job. With his many years of experience, Stefan knows that this sort of “military style” work environment does not, ~well~, work. The kitchen staff is a mix of professionals and students alike who function happily and healthily by means of “good communication, good atmosphere, good tools, fresh air, and a half hour break.” Stefan and his team are caring, as they always take the time to fully explain each dish, they are accommodating (special thanks for taking care of my gluten allergy!), and from what I can understand, they have a good taste in music when they bother to turn the volume up.
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that we are the most well nourished college students of all time. So, thank you Stefan. Your work here is proof enough that ~the good~ truly does exist outside of Kallipolis.