“The worst thing I can hear someone say about my cooking is that it was good,” says Andrew Duhasky, unit chef at Ontario Hall, one of Western’s award-winning residences on campus.
And five minutes into a conversation with Duhasky, you know he’s not joking.
“It was ‘good’ doesn’t mean anything. Anything is ‘good.’ An apple is ‘good’,” he explains while sautéing bright orange, red and green peppers for his signature Pad Thai dish. “I don’t want to hear anything. I want to see the eyes. Even when they’re wearing a face mask, I still want to see the eyes. I want to see those eyes just get a little bit bigger. And when someone’s eyes are even a little bit more animated than they would have been, I know what they’re eating is more than good.”
That’s Duhasky’s message: things will be different for everyone this fall because of coronavirus. Of course, they will be.
But while health and safety is a shared responsibility for everyone on campus and remains a top priority for all staff working in hospitality services, even a global pandemic won’t mask the flavours in Western’s renowned eateries and dining halls.
It’s not the mask or the beats bumping through the speakers that make it difficult to focus on Duhasky as he explains plans for a modified but enhanced culinary experience this fall. It’s the sizzle and smell of Thai cuisine being prepared fresh before your eyes that pulls you in. Duhasky is invigorated, and he thanks an unlikely source as his muse.
“I’ve been here for all of our changes and evolutions in the way that we do food at Ontario Hall but this year, it’s like we’re all new here. So much has changed because of COVID-19,” he explains. “But the nice part about being new is that you can reinvent yourself. You don’t have to do everything the way that you did before – you can’t. It’s forced change.”
Ontario Hall – like all dining halls, eateries and cafeterias across campus – is peppered with signage outlining Western’s enhanced health and safety standards and proper physical distancing protocols for the new academic year.
Duhasky doesn’t want these changes to restrict food and fare. He wants the cooks in Ontario Hall, himself included, to embrace the transformation and elevate each and every encounter with a new student.
“We want to move people through lines quickly but more importantly, we want to give them just as many options as they ever had, if not more,” he says. “We want them to still be overwhelmed with choices. We don’t want to limit choice. We want to limit time spent in lines but we don’t want to limit the important interaction that they have with their food and friends.”
A shared meal with friends
Chris Alleyne, Western’s associate vice-president of housing and ancillary services, says building a sense of community on campus through food is still very much on the table this fall.
“We know the sense of community is built around a shared meal, just like family dinner night,” says Alleyne, who is responsible for hospitality services. “Building those connections over a shared meal is so important. We don’t want to lose that in our dining halls, and we won’t.”
Like menus and food choices, physical constraints within dining halls has forced hospitality services staff to make some bold changes to seating plans and room staging to keep students safe. All seats have been placed two metres apart but staff have been creative in arranging tables to strengthen social connections while remaining physically distant.
“We’re actually using different orientations of seating so that it’s not one person at one table and everyone’s facing the front,” explains Alleyne. “We’ve also created pods of tables that can be moved around so we can make a large square of a tables facing each other with seats at each table. There’s still physical distance from one another but it will allow for shared meals and that sense of community.”
Other core safety practices for Western’s dining areas include washing and sanitizing hands before and after eating, not sharing utensils and using tap payments whenever possible.
Students will be required to wear masks and disposable gloves when entering all dining areas. Meal hours will also be extended to accommodate the amount of time it takes for students to access serving stations, as government mandated restrictions will limit the amount of people in dining halls and eateries at any one time.
Hospitality services is also sourcing more pre-cut products, which limits the amount of direct contact required during food preparation. Many services will also shift from a self-serve to a staff-serve model and options will be available in takeout packaging if students choose to eat in their own rooms.
Enjoy a beautiful campus
One new component of Western’s health and safety strategies for residences this fall includes installing multi-purpose activity tents outside all residences to augment seating for social gatherings, like shared meals, and scheduled programming.
“We want to take full advantage of the weather and Western’s beautiful campus to create opportunities for students to interact with each other,” says Alleyne. “Health and safety is a shared responsibility but it’s upon us to ensure students in our residences are not socially isolated. We’re physically distancing, yes, but we’re not socially distancing. Social connectedness is so important, so physically distanced and socially connected is what we’re striving for.”
Another part of Western’s return to campus plan is based on sheer numbers. De-densifying residences to support physical distancing has lowered the overall capacity making Western safer and stronger.
“We know students from all over the world chose Western, in part, because of the strong residential experience we provide,” says Alleyne. “We need to find safe ways in which our students can get together, meet each other and socialize.”
More than 50 per cent of Western’s residence spaces are located in buildings that were constructed in the last 25 years, where design priorities weighed heavily towards more independent and private accommodations for students. This is good news for living and learning and better news for health and safety.
The anticipated capacity in residence for the fall will be about 80 per cent of normal occupancy. About 4,100 students will live in Western’s nine residences this fall, compared to the typical population of 5,300.
“The health and wellness of our students is our priority,” says Alleyne. “And it’s also a shared responsibility. If we all adhere to physical distancing and follow precautionary measures, together we’ll create a safer and healthier Western community.”