Six blocks north of what many consider to be the best restaurant in the country, the $295 per person Per Se, lies a different type of culinary mecca. This one has to answer, on a daily basis, the question: How do you feed a teenage ballerina, a Wagnerian heldentenor, a Lincoln Center employee, a percussionist on his way to the gym, and a gluten-free actress fresh out of a brutal workout—all from the same kitchen? That’s the challenge faced by an eatery that has nourished thousands of people since opening in 1991: the Juilliard and School of American Ballet Cafeteria.
Open seven days a week and located on the plaza level of the Rose Building, the cafeteria has a staff of about 30 who serve some 600 students and Lincoln Center employees daily. At the head of it all is Fatou Bokoum, who became the food service director in July 2011 after a decade of working in a few of N.Y.U.’s 13 dining locations. In a recent interview with The Journal, Bokoum said that one big difference between N.Y.U. and Juilliard is that here there’s no demand for halal or kosher options. Another is the need to balance the needs of students with very athletic days with those of more sedentary patrons.
At Juilliard, the need to properly feed active students is a priority for Bokoum and her team, and it is one of the main forces shaping the cafeteria’s menu. “For lunch, what we realized is that S.A.B. students don’t want to eat a full sandwich before going to class, so they come in, take half a pound of salad, two side items, and something that they can eat later,” Bokoum said. The Juilliard actors, by contrast, are more likely to go for a lunchtime cheeseburger. Since 1991 the catering company Aramark Higher Education has run the café. Its staff proposes menus, which are on a monthly rotation. Once they receive the menus, Bokoum and assistant food service director Kane Jackowski-Majka meet with nutritionists from Juilliard and S.A.B. to make sure the proposals will work for the unique student bodies.
Many of the students also have their own relationships with the nutritionists, and sometimes their concerns or desires reach the food services staff through that channel. For instance, Jackowski-Majka noted that Greek yogurt was put on the shelves last year through this process. Gluten-free options have also been added—though quinoa pilaf was a total flop—and now occupy an entire section of the cafeteria. And while there were requests last year for vegetarian and vegan entrees, students only rarely bought them, so Bokoum and Jackowski-Majka figured out other ways to accommodate vegetarians that wouldn’t mean subbing out omnivorous entrées.
A typical day in the cafeteria starts at around 6 in the morning, when sous chef James Scolaro, who honed his knife skills at the Culinary Institute of America, begins prep with 10 to 12 other employees. Students begin trickling in at 7 a.m. on weekdays, and by lunchtime, Scolaro makes his way to the guest area so that students and Lincoln Center staff can interact with him.
To spice things up, the cafeteria periodically hosts special events like Oktoberfest, comfort food night, restaurant night (featuring a full-service meal in the cafeteria), and dine-with-the-director events that allow students to eat with Fatou and discuss their gastronomic dreams and needs.
This past summer, 15 students were recruited for a focus group on revising the meal plan. “Students were complaining about the cash value system that was going on in the caf and what they proposed was what we have now, which is the meal exchange program,” explained second-year bassist Michael Chiarello, who was one of the participants. As a result of that research, rather than giving students a set number of dollars to spend in the cafeteria, the meal exchange program allows them to choose one option each from a list of drinks, entrées, snacks, and desserts, regardless of the price. Students who might have been limited by the set dollar amount can now easily get enough to eat.
“For the most part, they’re pretty understanding of people’s dietary restrictions,” Chiarello said. While some colleges boast salad bars filled with veggies from the campus garden, ice cream from the campus cows, and daily lobster, most students agree that Juilliard’s cafeteria is an appropriate match for the School. “When you think about it, it makes sense for it to be the size that it is and to have the selection that it does,” Chiarello added. And what the cafeteria may lack in options compared to other colleges, it makes up for in the personal attention that the students receive. While Chiarello generally sticks to the same few options every day (sandwiches, salads), he has requested a couple additions to the salad bar and they were all added.
Bokoum and her employees enjoy getting to know the students and keeping up to date on their performances, and visiting alumni might see one of their favorite sandwich makers or cooks, some of whom have been there since the cafeteria opened. The community of the Juilliard and S.A.B. Cafeteria is something you won’t find at a hard-to-get-into downtown bistro, and while it certainly won’t serve you white truffles or artisanal charcuterie, it’s way better than that: it’s where students in their pajamas talking Edgard Varèse over a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich need not feel out of place.