With more focused diet trends and Top Chef captivating viewers’ interests and palate, students are more informed about food than ever. USC Hospitality Chef Eric Ernest is aware of this fact and, with freshness and quality in mind, has spent the summer implementing changes to menus campus-wide.
Q: As head chef, what is the biggest change students really need to be prepared for?
A: The overall programming is different. Café 84 used to be a food court and is now residential. You’ll no longer be able to go in and just buy a candy bar, now it’s kind of all-or-nothing. [At] EVK, 95 percent of all the fried food is gone. Where we used to have fried chicken, now it will be oven-fried chicken. We’ll quickly fry it to give it that effect, but we’ll let it finish in the oven.
Q: In focusing on trying to make the menus more healthy, are more local ingredients being incorporated, and are the seasons of certain foods going to affect them more?
A: Yes, we’ve added a lot of fresh, local, seasonal vegetables as well as seafood dishes.
Q: Are there any new seafood dishes that you’re especially excited about?
A: I would say the miso salmon with crispy ginger, I’m pretty excited about that.
Q: It sounds like you’re trying to cater not only to different diet trends, but also to the different ethnicities and tastes of the student body.
A: Ten years ago if you had “regional Asian dishes” they may not have even tried them or enjoyed them, but now it’s almost the expectation. We also have added a lot of Asian dishes and different regional dishes — Filipino, Hawaiian, Chinese, Thai, Indian — all the different ethnicities that make up “Asian food.” In the past it was almost like this blanket statement that we have “Asian food,” but it was de facto Chinese food.
Q: So of all these changes that we’ve talked about, which are you most excited to implement?
A: Probably the EVK Mongolian Grill. You take your fresh vegetables and homemade sauce, whether it be Chinese vegetables with a kung pow sauce, or rice or noodles or high-quality meats, and you stir fry them very quickly on this Mongolian grill. It’s so fresh and it’s done so fast, right in front of you, so you can see the integrity of the food is really there and is upheld.
Q: Is there anything else, campus-wide, that’s also changing?
A: Our big things this semester are the residential remodel, getting rid of the fried food, opening up Trojan Grounds as a Starbucks, opening up Traditions for lunch, and the Grub Line. Overall we’ve tried to balance all of that together.
Q: What kind of items are going to be featured in the Grub Line?
A: [The Grub Line] is a grab-and-go line in all our retail units. It’s all handmade, high quality but value-priced. It’s going to be everything from a vegan BBQ tofu sandwich, to a chicken pesto sandwich, chef salads, caesar salads. All really high quality, fresh-made, but value-priced. If you don’t have time, you’re on deadline or in the lab, you can go in and pick up the Grub Line and it’s all made with eco-friendly containers.
Q: It seems like you guys have considered every perspective of diet, taste, and expense, which is so important when dealing with so many people.
A: Especially adding Starbucks and the Grub Line, even the residential facilities, things are within price points and there’s a really good value. We’ve had to really focus on value. You go to EVK, pay $10 for lunch and have fresh grilled salmon.
Q: You definitely wouldn’t get that kind of meal off-campus for that price.
A: I know! I mean, fresh grilled salmon, fresh salad bars, waffle and crepe bars, you just wouldn’t get that. There’s nowhere on the planet that you’d get that price.