Thursday, August 16, 2012

Food at Gerlev

While I can’t say that food was the primary reason for my decision to study at Gerlev, those who have met me know that food is a pretty important part of my life (preferably in large quantities).   Gerlev is a boarding school, so all of the students and a number of the staff members live and eat on campus, meaning that food plays a very important role in life at the school.  The dining hall, called the “Spisesal” in Danish, is one of the focal points of the social life and meal times are regarded as much more than simply an opportunity to fuel up on calories.

Things get a bit congested at the start of mealtimes.  Photo courtesy of Rafaela Cappai.

Photo courtesy of Rafaela Cappai.

The fact that students have 5-6 meals/per day is usually pretty shocking to most people when they visit the school.  While this may seem excessive at first, it must be kept in mind that this is a sports højskole full of young and very energetic people, and the meals are well balanced and proportioned to the demands on the students bodies (i.e. light but healthy snacks between classes, larger meals for lunch and dinner).  Upon my arrival at Gerlev I saw the kitchens as a mysteriously wonderful place that magically produced a stream of delicious dishes out the large doors at the back of the dining hall.  Part of this was due to the fact that I didn't speak Danish and had a limited understanding of what actually went on behind said doors, and part of it was due to the fact that I had never heard any of the kitchen staff speak English, and was slightly intimidated by the language barrier by the serious-looking women wielding knives.  However, after my first day of kitchen duty I realized that the kitchen staff were very friendly and open and really enjoyed interacting with the students that they prepared food for.

The kitchen.   Photo courtesy of Rafaela Cappai.

A conversation with Helle Lunden Jensen, the Køkkenleder (Kitchen Manager), helped to elucidate me on how the Gerlev kitchen works and a lot of the planning and preparation that goes on behind the scenes.  The kitchen is staffed by 12 professionally trained workers (this requires at least 3 years of study in Denmark), who have a small rotating group of students that help out with various tasks associated with preparing the dining hall and cleaning up after meals.  Additional staff is hired for the summer season for the large influx of visitors to the school for events such as the European Gathering (full article coming soon).  In total the kitchen is responsible for serving over 150,000 main courses per year, with countless other snacks, appetizers, and munchies for the variety of meetings and events that occur on campus.

Some shots of the food at the European Gathering.  Photos by Fizz Hood.

It's nigh impossible to go hungry at Gerlev.   Photos by Fizz Hood.

One of the unique things about the kitchens at Gerlev is that students share part of the responsibility in preparing the meals for the school.  Up until a few years ago, students served almost and entire week per semester in the kitchen, spending most of each day helping to cook and prepare the food for the rest of the school.  This changed a few years ago due to a variety of reasons, including a desire by the students to spend more time in their classes and the disruption caused by student chefs' practical jokes in the kitchen (a few chili peppers slipped into a pot can result in a lot of very hungry and unhappy people).

Today, each students has 3 days of  “kitchen duty” every 2 months, for which they arrive at the kitchen 30 minutes prior to each meal to help prepare the food for serving, serve the food during the meal, and clean up and wash dishes for 30-45 minutes once the meal is over.  While the students are not directly responsible for the cooking of the food, most people on kitchen duty take a sort of sense of pride and responsibility in ensuring that the meal runs smoothly (it also gives them a much greater appreciation for how demanding their fellow students can be).  I really enjoyed the time that I spent on kitchen duty, and found that it was not only a good place to hang out (there are always leftover cake scraps that need to be eaten), but it gave me a much better understanding of how the whole system works.

The people on "kitchen duty" for the day.   Photo courtesy of Rafaela Cappai.  

I should note that the food served at Gerlev is very different from the food that I have eaten in dining halls, restaurants, and cafeterias throughout my journeys.  To say that it is healthier and more “Danish”, which, although accurate, would not quite convey the difference that I’d like so I’ve included a few pictures of the typical spread.  All meals are served in a buffet of well-balanced and visually appetizing food choices that cater to the the wide variety of food tastes and preferences among the student body.  Talking to Helle, I found that an astonishing 70% of the food served at the school is organic, with the other 30% are things that are too expensive or hard to find organic versions of (ex: ketchup, salt, spices).  Although the school tries to buy as much local produce as possible, feeding the entire school quickly exhausts local producers stores for up to two weeks so often things like berries,tomatoes, fruits, and other produce are purchased seasonally and from a variety of sources around the area.  All of the bread served on campus is baked daily in the kitchens to ensure that the kitchen has control over the ingredients being included, and no frozen vegetables (aside from spinach) are served to ensure freshness.

Mmmmm.....  Photo courtesy of Rafaela Cappai.

The actual menu is a motley of dishes with influences from all around the globe.  Meals can include hamburgers, tacos, Asian-inspired rice dishes, traditional Danish dishes, and all manner of fusions cooked up behind the kitchen doors.  According to Helle, the only thing that all of the food has in common is that it tastes good and is part of a well balanced diet, and the themes for the meals are a mix of constant experimentation on the part of the kitchen and feedback from students.  While students arriving at Gerlev are immediately struck by the quality of the food, there are a lot of other side effects that students don’t necessarily see, including a decrease in levels of sickness, healthy energy levels, lessening of food allergies, and a general feeling of "healthiness" around the school.  Having left Gerlev a few weeks ago I can testament to the symptoms of "Gerlev withdrawal" as my body re-adjusts to not having the luxury of Gerlev food anymore.

It just keeps coming.   Photo courtesy of Rafaela Cappai.

Since mealtime is such an integral part of life on campus, there are a number of traditions that exist during the meal times.  One of the most interesting for me is the concept of “messages” at the end of each meal.  Toward the end of the meal, a bell is rung and anyone that has a message that they would like the other staff and students to hear is welcome to come up and share.  These can range from "I lost my phone/earring/pants/shirt/jacket at the party over the weekend, has anyone seen it?", to announcements for sports and activities clubs, to publicizing upcoming events taking place at the school or nearby.  While at first this struck me as a bit silly, I realized that not only is it an effective way to distribute information to people that rarely check their email or phones when on campus, but more importantly, it helps to foster the feeling of community that is so important to the school's atmosphere.

Delivering messages to the rest of the dining hall at the end of the meal.   Photo courtesy of Rafaela Cappai .

Now that I have been away from the school for almost a month I can attest to the positive effect of the food served at Gerlev.  While I have always had a fairly "healthy" diet (even by non-American standards) my body really seemed to embrace the organic and balanced fare at Gerlev, something that has become increasingly apparent upon leaving Denmark to live in London.  While many students may take the food and atmosphere for granted when at school, many of my friends from Gerlev have also noticed a "Gerlev withdrawal" that is not entirely due to the absence of the atmosphere, but also due to the body's reaction to the change in diet.  Of course it is tough to go from 6 meals a day to 3-4, but personally I believe that much of the difference is due to the quality of the ingredients used and the effort by the kitchens to create well-balanced meals.  Needless to say, I'm looking forward to visiting...

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