Campus dining staff meet the challenge of preparing meals for students during the pandemic.

Photo by Jeff Fitlow

COVID-19 has affected every aspect of how Rice operates, and feeding its students has been a challenge of gastronomical proportion. With a consistent ranking of best college food in the country, Rice students have had food choices that satisfy the pickiest of eaters to those willing to give anything a try. 

So how does a campus go from six serveries — with menus encompassing everything from bison tacos, pho, Texas-shaped waffles, duck, cauliflower hoisin and renowned cinnamon rolls — to five kitchens operating with a reduced staff? The answer: Prepare a six-week cyclical menu plan that offers grab-and-go, basic takeout meals; lose the buffets, including popular eateries such as Wok on Sunset; and season each menu with food supply chain issues, including exorbitant tariffs on products such as aluminum foil. 

“It’s not easy,” says Susann Glenn, director of communications for administration. “Every kitchen has the same menu, and this is challenging, especially for the chefs.” Rice’s 17 chefs, all certified in various specialties and levels of certification, have developed almost cult-like followings over the years, and students could go to any of the serveries to eat. To contain cross-contamination, that option is no more. Glenn explains that a key goal is to reduce “touch points” in all of the serveries, which means there’s no longer self-serve menu items or buffet-style meals. 

While dining at Rice looks and tastes very different these days, students recognize the challenges the administration faces. “It’s clear to me how much effort has gone into making sure all students, regardless of diet, can eat and eat well,” says Anna Margaret Clyburn, a senior and Student Association president. “I know how many conversations about how to best provide food to students took place and the challenges Housing and Dining faces.” These obstacles have added stress and anxiety for all those with chairs at the table, but the administration, chefs, and Housing and Dining personnel are listening to students’ suggestions and offering additional dining options such as “Curbside at the Club,” giving students the ability to order online from Cohen House and pick up and pay with points from their meal plan. 

“We believe [Cohen House] has been a positive alternative for breakfast and lunch during the week,” says Johnny Curet, director of campus dining, and Kyle Hardwick, assistant dining director. “And through student feedback and communication with Student Association reps, we are continually adding additional menu options to help make the new normal more pleasing to the palate.”

Hardwick notes that, as chefs, they’re accustomed to adapting to change. “Our entire culinary team has adjusted to the restrictions, and while we would prefer to have the ability to provide our regular variety of food, we know this is only temporary,” he says. And on a sweet note, Chef Roger Elkhouri’s beloved cinnamon rolls are available at Cohen House.