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Cooking for a sorority: Menu ideas?


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Warning: Long post, I’ve never been very good with brevity. Read the whole thing or skip to the bottom where I’ll review what I’m asking for.

Next semester I am starting a new job as a chef for a sorority in California. The chapter has about 150 women in it, and I am responsible for cooking Lunch and Dinner Monday-Thursday and providing a Friday “brunch”. The lunches apparently host for about 80ish women from 11:30-1:00 and the Dinners normally are for about 80-100 women from 5:00-6:30. The meals are served buffet style, with the one exception being their formal dinner on Monday which is served family style and the whole chapter (all 150!) eats alongside their “House Mom”. I guess they can bring guests over consistently except Monday dinner, but apparently they keep the numbers in control (mostly boyfriends, etc). I am going to be using Sysco for most of my food needs, as there is already an account set up through the house that I can easily modify.

I am looking for suggestions for menus. My strategy will be to provide meals that allow for “comfort foods” but also give allowance to girls who might be willing to experiment. The chapter seems like it is full of very friendly and intelligent women, but definitely more on the stereotypical side in terms of looks: every member seems to have the body of a goddess and, I fear, the dietary habits accustomed to keeping such figures. Here are the basic details to help guide your suggestions:

Right now the cook has a hot entrée for every lunch, alongside with a “Deli Tray” and a salad bar. For dinner the salad bar is still available, along with a hot main entrée and a couple of healthy sides. The salad bar was rather boring the days I visited. My plan is to improve it by having stock ingredients every day as well as stock dressings mixed in with “rotating” homemade dressings, mainly interesting vinaigrettes. There would also be rotating ingredients everyday in the salad bar (artichoke hearts, feta cheese, nuts, broccoli, etc) to keep it interesting and allow the girls who enjoy food to experiment. I also want to establish a “fruit salad” station. These fruits would also follow the salad bar pattern: two or three “normal” fruits, spiced up with seasonal treats like kiwi or berries. I also want to eliminate the Deli Tray and switch it into a “daily soup” that would be available for both lunch and dinner, and it would be primarily vegetarian. The reason being that the Deli Tray seems to be a way for girls who don’t enjoy the entrees to have a comfort food, but they have supplies to make grilled cheese and peanut butter & jelly at all times so I think that could substitute.

For dinner it is a "main entree" (usually meat) with a couple sides (starch & veggie) with a salad bar. I want to keep this with the addition of the "daily soup" (at least when the weather calls for it).

The kitchen is large and industrial and is perfectly designed for cooking for large groups. The girls are only allowed in the kitchen for meal times, as that is where the serving station is located. Otherwise it is locked for liability purposes, but a 24-hour “Little Kitchen” (as they call it) is adjacent and features a panini maker, microwave, juice machine, coffee/espresso machine, small fridge and loads of snacks and teabags. Luckily the house mother is responsible for stocking those foods and not me so it doesn’t eat my budget at all.

I luckily have assistance in the kitchen and a very large budget so I can easily experiment. What I’m looking for is ideas. I read Malawry’s EGullet food blog which was slightly helpful, except there are many differences: I am cooking for more people, I have assistance, and it’s not a short-order lunch but rather a set lunch. Also I get the feeling that her girls were more down to eat anything…I am getting the suspicion that my girls will only want the healthiest foods.

So, in conclusion, I am looking for:

1. Menu ideas for lunch and dinner for that many girls, with an emphasis on health, as well as offering both comfort foods and experimental foods, and also an option for vegetarians.

2. Salad bar ideas for the “rotating” items, dressings and fruits.

3. Ideas for the brunch.

4. Fun daily soup ideas that would be healthy and mostly vegetarian

5. Ideas for the formal dinner on Monday night where it is served family style and the whole chapter shows up.

And anything else, really…I am very excited for the job and I have cooked for large numbers of people before, but it will still be different in that they are all the similar demographic. I am looking for menu ideas mainly, because I can find recipes pretty easily and can cook a wide variety of options already.

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Forgive me if I missed this, but:

1. What is a ballpark cost you are aiming for per meal/head?

2. Any allergies/dietary restrictions you are trying to work with besides vegetarianism? And are we talking ovo-lacto vegetarians, or vegan?

An interesting vinaigrette that is delicious and reduced-fat can be made by whisking balsamic vinegar, roasted garlic, a bit of tomato paste and honey to balance acidity. Then, whisk in extra-virgin olive oil (about 1 part oil for 2 parts vinegar) until emulsified and season with salt and pepper. The garlic and tomato paste allows fat to be cut back without sacrificing mouthfeel or flavor.

For the salad/fruit bar, I'm not sure where you're located, but if it is at all possible for you to source from local places, you may blow people's minds simply by procuring great tasting ingredients. Not sure what Sysco's produce offerings are like, but this could be an area for significant quality difference.

Congrats on the new job,and welcome to eGullet!

Edited by Sony (log)
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Interesting thread. I don't say I envy your position of cooking for sorority girls, but if you're up to the challenge, more power to you.

I oversee student dining on an advisory and consulting level on my campus of about 6000 undergraduates. Here are some insights.

You cannot underestimate the importance of the salad bar. At our main dining hall, the salad bar is our primary revenue center. That's not directly applicable to you, but it shows how much a body-conscious campus loves its salad, morning, noon, and night. To add to your fruit bar--a great idea--also include yogurt and granola. When my crew and I were able to orchestrate the inclusion of a yogurt/fruit bar at the freshman dining hall, people were singing our praises.

If you have the ability to invest in a frozen yogurt machine, do it. It'll save you tons of stress and time on the pastry front, and college students, especially sorority girls, love the fro-yo. It's almost freakish.

Also, don't underestimate the role of vegetarian items in your rotation. If your vegetarian repetoire is strong there's no reason that you can't feature entire nights of vegetarian cooking. At the least, your best veg. items will be as popular as your best meat items. I guarantee that. Again, this plays to the "healthy eating" thing.

Fish is an interesting thing for college students, especially based on where you are and the make up of the student body. Some health-conscious students I know forgo all meats but love fish and eat it at every meal. Think mild, along the tilapia, mahimahi lines. Those will also hold up well to buffet style service. But this can also backfire, since you mention many students consider any type of seafood, "experimentation" and will systematically shy away from it.

Although your comfort food theme works well, don't be limited to that. Themed nights in general are a good way to present both familiar and new items. For Mexican night, have both chicken fajitas and tamales. For Asian night, have hotel pans of stir fried chicken and vegetables and a steamed fish option. For Mediterranean night, feature not only chicken (notice a trend here) "gyros" but also roasted leg of lamb. Within the realm of the familiar you're likely to have more luck in encouraging people to branch out.

PM me if you'd like to discuss this further. I've had 3+ years of experience in tracking the way college students eat. What they eat, when they eat, how they eat. We're a bizarre crew, frat girls especially.

Edited by BryanZ (log)
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I don't have any experience on the industrial cookings side, so I'll just speak to what I would love to see if I were eating there (and I'm a vegetarian, so my ideas are skewed towards the meat free).

Lot's of bean dishes. They are high protein, and low in fat, as well as being tasty. Things like black bean soup, or lentil soup, black bean burritos, Indian lentil dishes, or mulligatawny soup.

You could do lettuce wraps, or get little tiny hard corn tortilla mini bowls, to fill with a mix of lettuce, veggies and beans (like baby taco salads).

Some stir fry dishes, with brown rice, loads of vegetables and they can choose their protein, tofu, chicken, seafood, whatever.

Light pasta dishes, like angel hair pasta primavera, or whole wheat linguine with chunky tomato sauce.

Flat bread pizzas, with little cheese, but loads of veggies (interesting ones, like artichoke hearts, broccoli, sun dried tomatoes and spinach.

Polenta, with tomato sauce and some veggies.

Fresh steamed veggies as sides. Good ones too, not just peas, corn or carrots. Things like asparagus, brussel sprouts, etc.

Serve nutritional powerhouse greens like Kale, Collard greens, mustard greens and spinach.

For Brunch, you could make scrambled tofu (with veggies) served with a tahini-miso sauce.


Miso soup, edamame, seaweed salad???

All right. I just made myself drool.

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I have no experience cooking for crowds larger than 40 or so - and no experience with sorority girls - but since I did attend college - and ate at the cafeteria - and have 15 years eating in mess halls (so much the pity) - two suggestions one of which was already touched on - themed - given your in California your girls are likely to come from a variety of backgrounds - so expand your reach to more even than Mexican, Asian, - and get more specific (Turkish, Northern versus Southern Italian, Thai, Indian, Afghan, the various French regions Normandy versus southern med dishes, etc.) - and your sourcing should be easy enough - and take the theme from soups to main dishes to sides all the way down to desserts... But my second suggestion I haven't seen mentioned yet - ask the girls what they want - make a contest to plan theme nights - have them suggest what 'comfort foods' mean to them - for some it might be mac and cheese others it might be tagines... - and tie this into those Monday family night meals - plan a costume night - for theme nights - work with the house mother to come up with good ideas too - likely she'll know the girls and their backgrounds better - so she may have some suggestions for what to offer as well. Sounds exciting - hope I've helped - good luck!

Live and learn. Die and get food. That's the Southern way.

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For some help with sourcing, which college are you at? If you're at UCB then I could give you a lot more help for the best cheaper sources of food around here. It really depends on your budget, though, what you'll be able to get. When I did the budget for the food at a house for 45 people our average cost of food/person/day was about 4.50-5.50, but when we switched to Niman Ranch meats that jumped to about 6.00-7.00. For an average of 50 eaters a night, we required about 1 milk delivery and one store run for fresh veggies every week, and a big delivery from a distributor about every three weeks, mostly dry goods and ice cream. If you have a normal sized car/station wagon, you'll probably have to make three runs a week, but if they have a van, that will make your life much easier.

If you have the capacity one of the easiest ways to come in way way under budget and make people happy is a "make your own pizza" night on a biweekly basis (why not every week? Trust me, cleaning that up is no fun).

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Tela's hit it on the head: you need to ask the girls what they want. We live in an incredibly diverse country...you need to know a little about the backgrounds of your charges to target the menu appropriately. Find out if the sorority has any food traditions of its own (some have even published cookbooks). Light and fresh are your watchwords; I work on a college campus, and takeout sushi (including seaweed salad, noodle & squid salads) is one of the most popular options in the food service area; it's right up there with Taco Bell.

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I was once a sorority girl who lived in the house and I am now a mother of a college student who lives on campus and works for dining services at an all-women's college that receives high marks for "best Campus food" by the Princeton Review.

Back in my day, poor Ms. G (the house mom) had to plan the menus and keep us on a strict budget (we weren't rich girls!). I was ALWAYS on a diet, and therefore avoided most of the meals as they were heavy on the starch, even though our houseboys were the cutest things from Phi Gamma Delta!. My go-to meals always involved soup and salads.

I love your idea of a daily soup and an jealous your diners have the omnipresent salad bar. Today's college kids are more adventurous than you would think. Hummus, falafel, sushi (think California roll) are familiar foods to these kids. Ditto for goat cheese, mesclun mix, pine nuts, pesto and the like. When it comes to proteins, most will still avoid fish, but mainly because it so often turns out plain bad when cooked for a large crowd. International food night (especially Indian and Thai food) is very popular. There are many kids at my daughter's school that come from Asian and African counties, so the cafeteria has regular offerings of International dishes to remind them of home. I don't know if your soroity girls will be diverse (my house was decidedly not), but quesadillas, taco salad, tacos, chicken fajitas go over well for everyone. Stir-fries are big - even with tofu!

For the salad bar, a variety of greens (arugula, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, field), crunchy veggies, low-fat dressings and simple vinaigrettes, nuts (pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pecans) crumbled cheeses (goat cheese, blue, cheddar). It's very "in" these days for colleges to go local as much as possible, so if you can get away from Sysco on the fresh produce, all the better.

For soups, I'd think Soup Nazi and try to offer a meatless and a "With meat" option if possible. Beer cheese soup, corn chowder, tomato bisque, black bean, minestrone, mushroom, lentil...

On comfort food nights, think of what you missed from home - good mashed potatoes, rolls, mac-n-cheese, meat loaf, spaghetti, chocolate pudding. Sweet potato fries are popular. My daughter's favorite meal at school is their Thanksgivig dinner with turkey and all the trimmings and from what I hear, no one misses that. For brunch, hash browns, sausage (turkey sausage), muffins, fruit and yogurt and granola, pancakes and muffins as well as soups and sandwiches.

My daughter's school has a recipe contest at the beginning of the year, and the winning dishes are incorporated into the menu.

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Interesting thread.  I don't say I envy your position of cooking for sorority girls, but if you're up to the challenge, more power to you.

i'd love to cook for a bunch of sorority girls......

and their mom's too...............

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Various "bar" concepts should work well in this context: baked-potato bar, taco bar, pasta bar, chili bar, etc. My limited contacts with today's college students indicates that, yes, they're somewhat more adventurous than previous generations but they're also control freaks about what they eat. So anything you can deconstruct into a "bar" that allows for self-assembly should be a strong performer. This also allows you to accommodate vegetarians and omnivores with the same item. You can get pretty inventive with the "bar" idea. For example, awhile back some friends and I did what was essentially a cassoulet bar for 30+ people. There were two big pots of beans (one vegetarian, one not), and then everybody could choose from duck, sausage, various vegetables, etc. -- lots of choices to build the cassoulet.

I also agree that a dialog with the sisters is essential. Taking feedback seriously is the best way to adapt to the clientele.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Hi Walker, congratulations on your new job.

Variety is definitely going to be one of the keys to getting good food into those girls. I guarantee you some of them will eat anything you throw at them, some of them will eat only a few items because they're picky or perpetually dieting, and most of them will be in between.

Your fruit and salad ideas will be very, very popular. My girls could never get enough fresh fruit, and they loved picking up a local apple to take to class as much as they enjoyed digging into summer melons that I'd slice and put out. Augmenting these items with cheeses, yogurts, and nuts as energy sources will make you very popular indeed, and they don't take much of your time.

Soups were probably the most popular thing I'd make at my sorority when I worked there. So yes, adding those is wonderful. Busy girls can get a styrofoam coffee cup of soup and drink it on the way to class, and leftovers heat up well if they have access to "late plate" service like I provided for my girls. Most soups are also low in fat and filling, which made them popular with the dieters.

I DO NOT recommend axing the deli trays. You say you have a generous budget, and they don't take any significant time to assemble, so if you can avoid it don't limit options they're used to. You're better off not adding the soups than taking away something they already know and love, many of these girls will be eaters of habit and they're not gonna be happy with an offer of PB&J if they normally eat turkey on wheat for lunch. You can keep the deli tray interesting by swapping out meats every so often and making some good condiments (a horseradish cream for roast beef, apricot or cranberry mustard for ham, etc) to go alongside.

Fat Guy's bar idea is good, but they will get tired of the bars if you offer them too often. Only do them often enough to keep things spiced up. All of those concepts are easy for you to execute with minimal effort, and they're especially good for when you are feeding extra large numbers of people (during rush, or if they sometimes have a fraternity and/or another sorority over for dinner like mine did a few times each semester).

Most college kids don't often get to eat breakfast foods, so breakfast-for-dinner was a very popular meal idea. I did one every few weeks: sometimes a big basket of homemade breakfast breads, or some homemade pancakes, along with eggs, sausages, bacon, potatoes, etc.

Vegetarians will love you forever if you provide options like veggie burgers, fake sausage on breakfast night, etc. Sysco carries many of these products, ask your rep what they have that doesn't require special order.

I would recommend that any desserts you give these girls be something really good and homemade. College girls love simple desserts like brownies and cookies, but mine also loved things like coconut pudding, tiramisu and apricot cake which I made every now and then. I only did a dessert twice a week, so nobody could bitch that I was making them fat every night, and those who wanted a sweet fix could get one.

If you're not sure you can keep up with all your new ideas, don't feel you have to introduce it all at once. You can start off for a few weeks providing your own quality versions of what they already had, and once you get used to the environment, look at improving the salad bar or adding the fruit bar or nudging soups into your menus. Don't feel you have to do it all at once, keep your wits about you and learn the ropes as you go. It's easier to add one new thing once you know how to manage your time for the baseline menu than try to do five new things at once. This is true anytime you take over a kitchen, IMO.

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If you're not sure you can keep up with all your new ideas, don't feel you have to introduce it all at once. You can start off for a few weeks providing your own quality versions of what they already had, and once you get used to the environment, look at improving the salad bar or adding the fruit bar or nudging soups into your menus. Don't feel you have to do it all at once, keep your wits about you and learn the ropes as you go. It's easier to add one new thing once you know how to manage your time for the baseline menu than try to do five new things at once. This is true anytime you take over a kitchen, IMO.

Wise words. Let's agree that Walker will have a long tenure, and therefore lots of time to experiment w/ new stuff. Improving the quality of existing menu offerings is a nice start for putting one's signature on a kitchen.

Karen Dar Woon

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when I was working at the university dining rooms, our most popular items included the fresh fruit and salad bars, "ethnic" foods (mostly Asian noodles from a made-to-order bar), sandwiches with NO mayo (!), NO butter. The students were always choosing fresh fruit to take to class, and also looked for portable items to munch on the run between classes.

Keep the deli trays. Some people will want to have control over how their food is prepared, and so a deli tray service offers the options.

Lucky girls those sorority sisters. Our chapters in Vancouver don't have chefs, even though the men's frats do. Sigh.

The girls will be "all over" theme nights. Especially if they get to decorate and dress up. Maybe separate teams could be in charge for one night each month?

p.s. I'm jealous of your budget. I'm currently cooking for 50 on $3 each.

Edited by KarenDW (log)

Karen Dar Woon

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