DURHAM, N.H. -- The kitchen staff at the University of New Hampshire's Philbrook Dining Hall finished peeling the garlic at 6:30 on Wednesday evening, the night before the French Feast on Thursday. The menu was unbelievably ambitious, and the garlic was intended for inclusion in Poulet Aux Quarante Gousses d'Aile, or Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic. "Is there some other way we can deal with so much garlic?" one of the kitchen workers asked.
But at the helm was Madeleine Kamman, internationally known cooking teacher, television cook, cookbook author and restaurateur who is also internationally known for her reluctance to compromise. "You had just better get started this minute with a little knife," said Kamman, a quick-moving woman with a soft cloud of white hair framing her young face and bright blue eyes.
Philbrook is one of three dining halls at the university and each one has its own walk-in refrigerator the size of a small apartment where all of the prep work for the French dinner waited for its hour at the stove, grill or oven. Vegetables cleaned and cut for the Soupe Au Pistou, boned and spiced legs of lamb, duck legs defatted for the confit, and trimmed sirloin roasts ready to be sliced thin for beefsteak au pil-pil. Somewhere on those shelves, which were packed to the ceiling, trays of herbed butter rosettes were ready to top each steak as it came off the grill.
A wit in the dining services department with a love for alliteration dubbed the dinner "Fabulous French Feast for Five Thousand."
Two days before, Kamman led the baking department through special breads -- orange-flavored pogne, a Roman flat bread called fougasse, and plain French bread. Also the dessert would include an orange tart with a nice bitter thrust and Serpent Au Pommes et aux Prunes, which turned out to be like strudel.
A food flyer called Scoop lists all the menus for the week and had special instructions for the French Feast. "Finish your meal as the French do with a piece of brie, boursin, cantal, or munster from our cheeseboard."
Sure enough. On the night of the dinner in each dining hall was a table of cheese, whole wheels of soft brie, a mountainous block of munster, an enormous chunk of compeaux, which had been assaulted furiously with the knives and spoons of earlier diners -- gouged to its very rind with only shards left behind. Smitten students were slipping off to other dining halls to see if any of this gruyer`e-style excellence was still around.
Serene and gracious, Kamman walked among the tables on feast night to greet friends who had come up from Boston and just answer anybody's questions. How would she rate the dinner? A Gallic shrug was softened with a smile. "Five thousand people," she said simply.
But the food was wonderful ... the achievement staggering when you consider the logistics. One mistake was made. The steaks were to be cut thick, grilled and then sliced 1/4-inch thick on the bias. The kitchens cut them to 1/4-inch before grilling. Many things were as perfect as she would have them, the Courgettes a la Latine still crisp-done, the polenta with mushrooms and cheese hot and deeply satisfying, the marinated lamb still brown on the outside and blush-pink within.
The point -- maybe -- is that 5,000 college students had a chance to taste classic French food, perhaps for the first time. Seared duck breasts were sliced thin and moistened with walnut sauce. All that garlic wafting everywhere. Like it or not, it was an educational experience.
The point -- really -- is that Hannelore M. Dawson, manager of planning, training, and nutrition for the dining service at the university was able to provide her staff -- and the students -- with an extraordinary experience. Like any good general she is keeping them on their toes by stretching their abilities. The prep, the detail, dovetailing, the final execution under a teacher of Madeleine Kamman's caliber. It's Broadway. And the excellence passes on to the students.
Dawson was born and educated in West Germany where she received her degrees in nutrition. In her tender early 20s, she was on her way to India to set up a dining service for Krup, a German appliance company, when she stopped off in the United States and stayed forever. Madeleine Kamman, of course, was born in France and began her studying the day she was tall enough to see over the rim of the kitchen table.
So they are sisters of the skillet with a membership in an exclusive fraternity that has its own language and possibly its own handshake. Everybody knows that there is no substitute for European training.
Kamman's three-day visit and the French Feast were part of Dawson's master plan that has been continuing for the two years that she has been in charge of the dining service. "My aim," she says, "is to take the institution out of institutional food with visiting chefs, special dinners, ethnic dishes on the menu every day, daffodils, roses."
In April, the tables were graced with tulips, and toward the end of the evening Dawson was busy replacing the flowers the students had taken back to their dorms. She is a handsome blond in her mid-40s with a warm, affectionate style, and two grown children of her own to give her some clue as to a student's tolerance for exciting food.
Durham, the town where the University of New Hampshire is, has no other reason for being. Boston is an hour and a half away, the seacoast about 30 minutes, and in a small, fast car you can reach historic Portsmouth in 15 minutes. Yet, it has 90-some restaurants, including one classic French place with pa~te' and sauce bercy and profiteroles and the whole thing. Also Italian, Mexican, Chinese including one Szechuan. But why spend money when the student who is paying attention can get a food education with his meal ticket?
The enrollment tops 10,000 and over half have some arrangement with the three dining halls. The service is cafeteria style, student workers doling out Dawson's glitz and glitter, the signature dishes she began adding two years ago -- Szechuan Spicy Beef, Hot and Sour Soup, Vegetarian Moussaka, a grilled trout complete with head and tail in the European fashion. Those student wizards are on the way to the top and need to know how to eat a whole fish along with economics. Sauerbraten, Chicken in Puff Pastry. Cheese Souffle', and jalapenåo peppers in the biscuits.
"I've always felt that quantity food can be prepared perfectly no matter what," Dawson said. "There are methods to keep the flavors fresh." Dishes are made almost to order, the vegetables put into the microwave oven only when another pan is needed. Tart shells are prebaked, a detail few large kitchens bother with although it is essential for a crisp bottom and finished flavor.
Special dinner nights are frequent. On spud night, a baked potato is topped with guacamole, cheddar cheese, saute'ed mushrooms and chopped scallion. Bagel night proves that they aren't for breakfast alone. Fillings are offered that would turn your Uncle Max purple -- shaved ham and provolone, sprouts and broccoli, but also lox and cream cheese.
Student participation is encouraged. The day Dawson realized that many students weren't eating breakfast, she invented a poker game and doled out the cards only in the morning. The best hand got a breakfast for two at the New England Center, an elegant restaurant and convention complex on campus.
UNH's very own delicious granola is available for every meal of every day. But Dawson says, "The students are getting more sophisticated. They'll try anything once."
Like the squid incident. First it appeared without fanfare as one more selection for dinner. "It bombed. Then we had an International Dinner with all kinds of food they'd never tasted -- chicken tandoori, tempura and crisp squid rings that were batter-dipped and deep-fried. They were gone in 30 minutes. I had no idea that they'd be that popular."
To be able to compare an average night with the French Feast, I arrived at Philbrook Dining Hall the day before to observe. The entrees were interesting -- Veal Limone (breaded, grilled cutlet), Canadian Pork Pie, and Tofu Stir-fry, which looked beautiful but wasn't moving that night.
Sleek, skinny men and woman, their brows furrowed with academic rigors, were stoking up for the night ahead. Bread; good grief, a long table with four varieties emptied frequently and sent the chef and manager scurrying to the enormous basement kitchen for more. "They'll never eat bread like this again in their lives," Dawson had said one lunchtime. So these students were making up for a breadless future.
Plate after plate went by with steamed rice, jade-green broccoli, baked tomato halves topped with cheese. The vegetarian population is large. At the French Feast, the same fastidious group would eat Rice Americaine, the polenta with cheese, the zucchini or the spinach or both.
The night before the big dinner, the glass window of the manager's office overlooking the kitchen was solid with sheets of paper taped in a row. They were recipes from the central office. Kamman had already briefed the staff, but no detail would get by. "SOAK THE BEANS TONIGHT" was written in caps on the recipe for Soupe au Pistou.
How did the staff from vegetable scrubbers to grill chef shoulder this extra work?
"There was some grumbling," chef Barry DuFault said, "but they were proud to see what they could do." DuFault has a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales College and has cooked for years in three-star restaurants and did a rigorous stint on a cruise line.
A few weeks before the French dinner, Paul Fairbrook -- a food management expert, author, lecturer and consultant to colleges and universities -- spent three days at UNH. "He ranked us in the top 10 of university kitchens in the country," DuFault said. "That also made the staff happy."
And, in July, the Kamman dinner was named "best event in the nation" by the National Association of College and University Food Services.