Food service provider struggles to provide authentic dishes, multicultural leaders say

Media Credit: Jack Borowiak | Staff Photographer

Amira Bakir, the president of the Muslim Students' Association, said it was easier working with Sodexo than Restaurant Associates because they gave waivers to many organizations, allowing groups to use outside catering.

Updated: Sept. 21, 2017 at 4:00 p.m.

Sara Durrani, last year’s vice president of the Pakistani Student Association, wanted to have authentic cultural food at the group’s general body meeting last February but instead was served plain chicken.

Durrani said she worked with Restaurant Associates – which now caters all student organization events in the Marvin Center, after replacing Sodexo as the University’s cooperate dining partner last year – to serve traditional Pakistani dishes like butter chicken and channa masala, a curried chickpea dish.

But when she arrived at the meeting, the meal prepared was regular chicken and Mexican-flavored black beans.

“It’s not that the food doesn’t taste good – I just can’t say that it is Pakistani food,” she said.

Leaders of multicultural organizations said Restaurant Associates has often provided inadequate alternatives to dishes requested for events and does not easily allow the groups to hire outside caterers. University spokesman Brett Zongker said the company, which now runs on-campus dining vendors on the Mount Vernon Campus and catering for events in the Marvin Center, does provide “diverse” options to students and that officials are in talks with the company about how to improve their process of working with students.

Durrani said for the group’s next event – Rangeen, which marks the start of South Asian Heritage month in March – she held two taste tests with Restaurant Associates to ensure the food they were providing was appropriate for the celebration.

“They made a lot of comments like ‘this is best you’re going to get, this is all you’re going to get,’ which I don’t think was a satisfactory answer,” Durrani said. “You can’t tell me as a Pakistani student that this is Pakistani food when it is obviously not.”

Zongker said Restaurant Associates considers offering waivers to students if the company cannot meet the “specific requirements” for an event. But so far the caterer has not issued any waivers, he said.

“The University and RA are currently in conversations to identify if there are enhancements or process improvements that can be made to accommodate student organization desires for greater flexibility in this process under certain circumstances,” he said in an email.

Zongker said the company has also made efforts to “meet with student groups to evaluate their needs and determine the best options for their events of all sizes and budgets.”

He said the caterer allows for taste tests for large events and also has provided student organizations with information about working with the company, but he declined to say what would happen if a student organization hired an outside caterer without obtaining a waiver.

“It is helpful for students to meet with the catering manager as early in the process as possible so she can assist in creating multicultural events menus that are as authentic to the country of origin as possible,” Zongker said.

But other organizations, like the Japanese American Student Alliance, have still encountered issues. Jennifer Liu, the president of the organization, said for their annual Japan Fest – a “night market” cultural event last spring – the group had to simplify their recipes to allow Restaurant Associates to prepare dishes suitable for the occasion.

Even with the newly-changed recipes, Liu said the rice was watery and the miso soup was thick, instead of the traditional thin consistency. Liu had gone for a taste test and said she was not impressed with their results.

“The first impression of the food was horrible. We had to give them tips on how to make ethnic food,” Liu said. “It was difficult because our food was Asian-based, so simple stuff like rice they didn’t make correctly.”

Liu said culturally-accurate food is vital to help attendees feel a connection to their culture at heritage events.

“I think that not having the food being catered, from authentic Japanese restaurants and what we could make, it is kind of a downer,” Liu said. “It tastes very white-washed, not ethnic and not accurate.”

Last year, the Student Association had rule changes in the finance committee that prioritized “cultural significance” and that increased the amount of funding multicultural organizations received from the SA.

The Muslim Students’ Association also had to go to extra lengths to make sure that Restaurant Associates was making the food they wanted, but the president of the organization said the company was willing to accept the group’s feedback.

Amira Bakir, the president of MSA, said it was easier working with Sodexo because they gave waivers to many organizations, allowing groups to use outside catering.

Since the MSA could not get a waiver from Restaurant Associates, Bakir said MSA worked with the caterer to help chefs prepare the food they wanted. Bakir said after they started working with them, Restaurant Associates was very receptive to their suggestions.

“You need to be willing to compromise, but don’t come in with a defeatist attitude,” Bakir said. “It is not likely that you are going to get your grandma’s recipe.”

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
In the photo caption, The Hatchet incorrectly identified Amira Bakir as Sara Durrani. It has now been corrected. We regret this error.

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