For eaters a few years removed from college, the current state of on-campus dining is astounding. Most colleges and universities around Seattle have scrapped the classic 21-meal-a-week plan in favor of charging students by the meal or food item, and started serving food that's healthy, interesting and local. When I checked out the cafeteria at Seattle University last year, my lunch included grilled Lummi Island salmon, patty pan squash and pickled beans.
But the University of Washington this year added another innovation to the mix, introducing its first sit-down restaurant. While schools across the country operate "real" restaurants with menus and table service, they're typically designed to serve faculty and staff members: Cultivate, the subject of this week's feature, is one of the few campus restaurants nationwide pitching its steamed clams and roasted hens to students.
When I first learned of Cultivate -- which spent three years in development before debuting with this fall's opening of Elm Hall -- I cynically assumed the cash-strapped state school was trying to recover money spent on fancy dinners in town. But when I spoke to chef de cuisine Amy Belknap, she assured me that economics didn't drive the Cultivate concept. According to Belknap, the restaurant was instead designed to further the University's mission of minting mature, independent and knowledgeable adults. Cultivate is where students learn how to eat out.
My alma mater did a fine job of preparing home cooks: There isn't another school in the U.S. with such a high percentage of students enrolled in co-ops. That means the average Oberlin grad is preternaturally good at making pizza with nutritional yeast and boiling lentils by the stock potful. Unfortunately, those skills are useless when summoned to lunch with a potential employer or forced to get a quick read on an unknown city: Fluency in restaurant-going is an essential skill for adults who care about culture and community.
When I was a student, the biggest advances in on-campus dining were the addition of a fake chicken patty to the grill's menu and the expansion of cafeteria hours past 7 p.m. So I'm awfully jealous that UW students can have ginger beer-glazed pork belly buns for supper (assuming they can score a seat at the tremendously popular restaurant.) Yet at least a few contrarians oppose Cultivate on principle.
"With students already shelling out small fortunes for everything from textbooks to tuition to housing, the last option we need is fancy food with a mind-boggling cost attached to it," The Daily's opinion editor wrote last April. "Good luck with your hopeful idea, but as far as my own dining budget goes, I'll be sticking with $5 pho and the lunch buffets scattered around the Ave -- it trumps having a waiter bring out my dinner any day, and leaves money for dessert."
Cultivate isn't dirt cheap, but the prices are far from "mind-boggling." A grilled pork porterhouse is $10, and there aren't any taxes or tips on campus. While working students aren't likely to make Cultivate a daily habit, a $10 special occasion meal is well within the reach of most eaters. More importantly, it's a small price to pay to shake up preconceived notions about "having a waiter bring out my dinner."
By teaching young eaters whose previous sit-down experience might be limited to grandparents' birthday lunches and awkward prom dinners how to savor conversation at table and assemble a multicourse meal, Cultivate is performing a valuable service. And eaters already sold on the waiter rigamarole shouldn't mistake the restaurant for a culinary classroom: The mood's bright and the food's great. For more on Cultivate - including its spectacular pastrami - check out my reviewish feature here. And Joshua Huston took the pictures to match.