the recent opening of Rens selaer Polytechnic Institute’s
Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), the
Troy campus has received well-deserved national attention.
I recently toured the facility to sample a few of the ongoing
artistic offerings, but as the day went on my thoughts turned
to a more burning question: What’s for lunch?
Thunder Mountain Curry at RPI’s MacNeil Room, in the Rensselaer
Union at 15th Street and Sage Avenue, where Mike Gordon serves
a changing menu of delicacies from India and beyond. He’s
there during the weekdays for lunch and downstairs in the
union’s Rathskeller at night. Gordon is known for his stand
at the Troy Farmer’s Market on Saturdays; his RPI incursion
began with a cart on the street, which led the school’s chef,
Jackie Baldwin, to invite him inside.
dining bargain in the area is Thunder Mountain Curry’s $7
sampler plate. This allows you to taste Gordon’s signature
curry of the day, rice (Basmati or sticky) and vegetables,
topped with a generous handful of freshly-fried pakoras, condiments
(chopped garlic and toasted shallots, for instance), sauces
and a pickle.
students are in charge of making decisions [about food],”
says Baldwin, “and they had a choice between Thunder Mountain
Curry and a sushi vendor. Thunder Mountain won unanimously.”
has been in the student union since January, sharing space
with Maxx deli (gourmet hot sandwiches, as well as a traditional
deli selection); Sandella’s, offering wraps, pizza and panini;
SaladFX, for more verdant grazing; and the Southwestern-inspired
cuisine of Ultimate Baja. When I visited, Gordon’s sampler
included chicken in red curry sauce, Sri Lankan five-flavor
beets, sesame green bean stir-fry, palak paneer and pakoras.
Chicken biryani with golden raisins and apricots was also
introduced me to this cuisine,” says Gordon. “I’m classically
trained; I went through culinary school, but my wife made
me a curry one night that changed my life. She’s a teacher
who spent seven years working in Pakistan. That curry she
made really jazzed me, and I started learning those recipes.
And I try to make it an educational experience for my customers.
Today I brought together all the flavor elements—hot, sweet,
salty, sour—with a menu that encourages people to play around
with the idea of food. Lately I’ve been adding more Thai dishes,
putting different countries together.”
participation reflects a developing philosophy at the campus
for growing beyond the typical dining-hall fare of high-fat
fast food. The college’s food service is provided by a division
of Sodexo, one of the largest international food and facilities
management services. Although the company has come under fire
for its ties to private prisons and the U.S. Department of
Defense, the local face of the company (RPI’s food service
falls under the aegis of Sodexo USA’s Rensselaer Hospitality
Services) reflects Baldwin’s commendable mission not only
to accommodate a wide range of tastes but also to work with
local farmers, purveyors and chefs to assure quality in variety.
at the Rensselaer Union you can get meals all day and into
the night from the Rathskeller vendors, including Grill 155
(burgers and other grilled items), the Sub Connection, Cyberwraps,
Fire and Spice (pizza and wings) and, in the evenings, Thunder
looking for organic fare or simply something healthier than
fried stuff, look in the Balance section of the newly renovated
Fathers Marketplace. The shop is just down the hall and stays
open late on weekdays. Also for sale are prepared foods for
reheating, pasta salads, hero sandwiches (chicken and meatball
parm are popular), coffee and smoothies. The market won a
write up a few months ago in the magazine C/Stores
recognition comes later this month at a Las Vegas conference
where Food Management magazine will honor Baldwin and
Sodexo Campus Services district manager John Fusco for a special
campus dietary program called MyZone. Launched a year ago,
MyZone provides complete meals that accommodate food allergies
and dietary needs.
biggest item is the line of gluten-free meals we provide,”
says Baldwin, displaying a heat-and-serve package. We have
our own bakery, and can make these wheat-free as well.”
is located at one end of the Commons Dining Hall, which is
nestled among the first-year residence buildings. Fresh meals
can be prepared in the MyZone kitchen, and frozen items are
always available. “We also have meals that are dairy free,
and we can cook kosher and halal. We tailor the program to
individual students. Recently we had a student with a broken
jaw, and we were able to purée all his meals. Last year, we
had 46 halal students. It changes each semester.”
food types at the Commons—where you dine under the arresting
sight of an experimental glider built by RPI students many
years ago—include Asian fare (at the Asian Pacifica station),
pasta to order, a deli, an ever-changing Theme Cuisine station,
and many other salad and sandwich options.
this size—there are 7,000 students and 2,500 of them have
a meal plan—requires many dining venues. Jazzman’s Café (at
Darrin Hall), one of Sodexo’s upscale brands and a mainstay
at classy airports, sells subs, wraps, panini, cappuccino,
espresso and freshly baked cookies; Sage Labs’ Beanery Café
has gourmet sandwiches and convenience store items. Then there’s
Stacks Deli at the Library Café, the grab-and-go Lalley Galley
at the School of Management, and the stand-alone coffeehouse
Java++ at 15th and Congress.
to the Russell Sage Dining Hall sports 320 seats and feeds
more than 1,200 students each day. The Market is a self-service
salad bar; burgers and Philly cheese sandwiches are among
grilled items produced by Flame; Tradition has a changing
menu of self-serve items; and Firenze Oven cranks out some
140 pizzas a day in addition to pasta dishes.
there’s Passports, which features international exhibition
cooking. This means you get to watch campus food- service
celebrity Tofu Tim at work. He was flamboyantly preparing
omelets when I stopped by to watch, engaged in high- spirited
conversation with the students. “I listen to the kids,” he
told me later, trying to explain his popularity, “and I make
what they like.”
clear evidence of his own preferences in his craft. His vegetarian
items were popular enough to earn him his sobriquet, a salute
to the protean protein he favors. “I also run a culinary club
every other Friday,” he says, “where students and I cook together.
Our most recent one featured Moroccan beef skewers with couscous
and southwest chili with Indian spices. And there’s no holding
back on the spices.”
Café, built on the concept of total cooperation between students
and staff, is run every Wednesday at Sage Dining Hall. “We
wanted to create a community around the concept of food made
from local and organic ingredients,” says Elly Braco, who
worked with Baldwin to develop the café. A recent menu of
beef (or tofu) and broccoli stir-fry used Northeast Family
Farms beef and Wertman Farms broccoli, organic rice, organic
greens, DiviniTea tea and Goold Farms cider.
Galbraith, who was helping put out the meal, said, “We look
at what’s at the farmer’s market and suggest a menu. We build
it around a protein, and work with the chefs to refine it.
Our most popular items, by far, are chicken and eggplant parmigiana.
When that’s announced, there’s always a long line out the
door, and we’ll sell about 120 to 140 of them.”
this concept work more days a week than one? “We’ve talked
about it,” says Braco, “but I worry that it might take away
from the sense of community if we did it more often.” So each
Wednesday, at least, the dining area is filled with students
and professors eager to support the concept of local, sustainable
doesn’t even take into account the on-site catering provided
by Baldwin’s staff. It’s no wonder you’re likely to catch
sight of people in chef’s jackets as you walk the grounds:
There are more than 200 people employed at RPI for food service
alone. This month they’re especially busy as the EMPAC festivities
continue. Be sure to get over to RPI to see the new facility,
and then take a few minutes to get a bite to eat.