UCLA's innovative 'Feast at Rieber' restaurant brings eclectic tastes of Asia to Bruins
By Claudia Luther November 07, 2011 Category: Campus News
Years in the planning, the new Feast at Rieber residential restaurant at UCLA is now open, and a feast it is — for the eyes, nose, ears and, most of all, taste buds.
The restaurant's focus is on seven popular Asian cuisines: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian and Hawaiian. If there is another student residence-hall restaurant in the country like it, no one seems to know of it.
At Feast, patrons enter a room featuring 12,000 square feet of dining space with room for 600 diners that seems somehow cozy, with its warm, earth-toned furnishings, terrazzo floor, natural woods and bamboo accents. One wall is all windows, letting in plenty of natural light to blend with the subtle indoor lighting. A state-of-the-art sound system plays background music chosen with student input and dubbed "Pan-Asian Electric Chill." And scattered around the room are three 65-inch TVs that feature UCLA sports and cultural events, as well as educational and cultural programming from the regions represented by Feast's cuisines.
Feast, which replaces the Rieber Residential Restaurant, is a long step from the typical student cafeteria — a concept from which UCLA long ago parted company. The effort to provide more of a restaurant experience for students is being taken to new heights at Feast, said Peter Angelis, UCLA's assistant vice chancellor for housing and hospitality services.
As UCLA students know, their campus is located in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., one with large Chinese, Thai, Korean and other Asian populations. And Bruins regularly avail themselves of these communities' foods and cultures.
"Our students are very knowledgeable about the world around them," Angelis said. "They've traveled, and they've eaten out in restaurants of every kind all their lives. From survey feedback and other discussions, they've clearly told us they love all kinds of Asian and Asian-fusion food. With Feast, we're responding to their tastes in a way that matches their level of sophistication."
Entering Feast, the pan-Asian smells are so enticing that it's hard to know which station to head for first: Big Bowl, for authentic stir-fry, noodle, curry or fried rice dishes; Spice Kitchen, for sushi, spring rolls, dumplings or special sandwiches; Iron Grill, for a savory pancake or a grilled sandwich? And for anyone who thinks that rice is just rice, there are at least seven varieties being served at Feast, depending on the dish and its place of origin: jasmine (Chinese and Thai dishes), white sticky rice and brown short-grain (Korean and Japanese), Basmati (Indian), "broken" rice (Vietnamese) and other specialty rices, such as organic volcano rice and bamboo rice for specific dishes.
Feast also features the Stone Oven, for fresh flatbread, either crispy or soft, and Greens & More, for traditional soups, hot sides, salads and condiments. As a final enticement, there are, of course, desserts. One day, there were more than a dozen different offerings, including Hawaiian butter mochi, Japanese melon pan and Indian kheer (rice pudding). Green tea soft-serve ice cream is available every day, as are brownies and cookies for the traditionalists.
Vegetarians and vegans also will find many choices. And because many students focus on healthy eating, nutritional and calorie information on many items is provided on LCD menu boards.
Comments from students during the "soft opening" that preceded Feast's launch were positive. "I've been all over Asia, and the cuisine is remarkably authentic," one student said. Another said simply, "I ate until I was stuffed." Many students praised the variety and presentation of the food.
Feast was brought into being by Angelis and his culinary team, which is led by Daryl Ansel, director of food and beverage for UCLA Dining Services, and includes assistant director Alex Macias; Feast executive chef Mikel Mark Kim; Feast sous chef Joachim Weritz; research-and-develpment chef Jorge Noriega, and UCLA executive chef Roger Pigozzi. With the support of a dedicated team of students, they spent more than a year exploring Los Angeles' many ethnic restaurants and testing recipes from each of Feast's seven cuisines, ultimately coming up with more than 1,000 recipes that will be rotated during each quarter of the school year. At least two different cuisines will be featured at each meal. A whole new line of suppliers was needed to provide some of the special ingredients needed to make the dishes authentic.
At every step, students were heavily involved in choosing Feast's offerings. For example, Bruins from Korea and China were brought in to judge the authenticity of the dishes from their countries — just one of the many student groups that had a voice in the process. During the restaurant's soft opening, student participation was greatly expanded, as hundreds were invited to taste the initial offerings. A bank of laptops was placed at the door for feedback, and that information will be used to guide the staff on what to offer in the future. A "distinguished palate committee" will continue to advise Feast on food and beverages, as well as décor, music, TV programming and other aspects.
One merely has to enter Feast to understand that there's something special going on. Patrons are greeted by a specially trained staff that has learned not only the ways of Asian cooking but the traditional greetings of all seven of the locations whose cuisines are featured. This is just one indication of the cultural-awareness component of Feast, Angelis said.
"We think we can help ensure a more welcoming and culturally inclusive community on 'The Hill' by celebrating our residents' diverse cultures through the appreciation of their great cuisines," he said.
Feast comes just in time to accommodate new students who will soon be occupying new residence halls on The Hill, in addition current students. Come January, when the winter quarter begins, the Upper De Neve and Sproul Addition residence halls will open in the upper northwest part of campus, adding 1,500 students to the more than 10,000 already housed there. By 2013, as other residence halls are completed, that number will rise to almost 13,000.
As any resident of The Hill knows, traversing UCLA's undulating terrain takes energy and time, so students often stop at one of the residence-hall dining facilities on the lower part of The Hill, like the one at De Neve. But those facilities have long been pushed to the limit. Part of the strategy of Feast is to entice students to walk further up The Hill to places like Rieber to spread their patronage throughout UCLA's dining venues, Angelis said.
From the way it looks and feels, to the food it offers, Feast is going a long way toward making students feel special and welcome.
"At UCLA, we have long believed that providing excellent food is important, not just because it nourishes our students so they can succeed here, but also because it provides a touch of home and helps alleviate stress," Angelis said. "With Feast, we are taking this approach to a higher level."
For more on Feast at Rieber, visit www.feastatrieber.org.