On May 3, 2016, several members of the NYU Shanghai community participated in a boycott of the Academic Building’s cafeteria and the second floor cafe. Prompted by complaints about low quality and high prices, the then-functioning Food Services Reform Committee (FSRC) released a document containing a list of the most common complaints against the cafeteria, divided into one of five categories: price, variety, health, physical environment, and quality. The document was then presented to Nine Masters, the caterers of the NYU Shanghai cafeteria, in an attempt to solve the issues.
But what was the effect of the boycott, and did anything really change?
Following the first day of the boycott, five members of the FSRC met with Nine Masters Manager Jerry Zhang to discuss the issues raised by students and faculty and how they can be addressed. A document containing full meeting minutes as well as detailed explanations for the issues was released to the NYU Shanghai community via email and Facebook.
During the summer, Student Government’s Director of Student Life and Residence (SLR) Millicent Wong sent a mass email to the NYU Shanghai community highlighting changes Nine Masters promised to bring this semester, including a vegetarian diet area, a variety of dishes during the weeks to avoid repetition, strict control of the amount of oil and salt while cooking, training of all staff on topics such as food and production safety, and the selection of new cooks and chefs during the summer. Promises to train all staff in English were also made after Zhang was no longer the Manager. The school hired Chef Ding, who previously worked in a 5-star hotel, to be in charge of the Western food in the cafeteria, and Chef Jin, one of the top twenty chefs in China, to overlook the Chinese section. OCA interviewed the two chefs to ask about their agenda for change.
Changes and Developments:
Vegetarian and Vegan Food
One of the most common complaints last year was the lack of vegetarian and vegan options in all sections of the cafeteria (Chinese, western, halal), and the quality of the salad bar was also under question after several incidents of food poisoning occurred among students and faculty.
This year, dishes are being labelled “vegetarian” and “vegan” to indicate variety, and the three big sections of the cafeteria have incorporated a few vegan/vegetarian dishes. The food labels now also indicate the amount of calories in each dish, allowing students to choose based on personal dietary preferences. The salad bar has also been expanded to twenty different kinds of options. Every day since Sept. 26, the cafeteria has been trying to add at least one new mixed salad option every day.
However, a new problem has arisen. While the vegetarian/vegan food is explicitly labelled, it seems to be sold out more quickly than the rest of the dishes, often before the target audience has a chance to purchase it. There is talk among cafeteria patrons that this may be because the vegetarian food is not made in the same quantities as the rest of the dishes.
Opinions on whether the salad bar has improved since the boycott vary.
“The salad bar never changes, and the options for vegetarians and vegans are very limited and not very tasty,” commented NYU Shanghai sophomore Jeanne le Galcher. “It’s very depressing to go eat at B1 because it really is not something I look up to. I think that when you are so far away from home and stressed by work, knowing that you are going to have a good lunch is something that can actually make things a little easier.”
The halal section, one of the most popular sections of the cafeteria, is not operated by Nine Masters but by a partner company that provides the halal meat Nine Masters does not. The halal section has undoubtedly gone through several changes including expansion of the “daily menu”, wider variety of dishes for the special menus for individual days of the week, and more vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options such as the vegan burger.
Given the restrictive working hours of the cafeteria and the fact that only the halal section is open most of the day, this allows more students to get food at the cafeteria at non-regular hours. However, recent complains seem to include the fact that other than the few vegetarian dishes available, majority of the menu consists of beef, with very few options of chicken, lamb, etc., limiting the options of students who only eat certain types of meat.
NYU Shanghai senior Usama Shahid said, “I think the cafeteria in general has a lot of room for improvement, especially the timings as they are very limited. At breakfast, people come in waves so it is very hard to get breakfast in a timely fashion. Regarding the halal section, the common perception is that the menu has been expanded in general but the reality is that it has actually been shortened to a variety of beef dishes. Cleanliness and service of the halal section has definitely improved, quality of food however has not changed in two years. The halal section needs more variety which is more reflective of a typical halal menu at any halal restaurant in Shanghai.”
The chefs were informed that one of the biggest problems last year was the price of the dishes. This year, the chefs are working on reducing the price of most dishes and currently the highest price of any dish in the Chinese section is 10-12 RMB, and all vegetable dishes have been reduced to 3 RMB compared to 4RMB last year. However, most Chinese universities are often subsidized by the government and can thus sell food at very low prices; as NYU Shanghai is not subsidized by the Chinese government, the cafeteria functions as a regular business where the product is sold for the cost required to make the dish.
Health and Safety Standards
OCA, along with Public Safety’s EHS Officer Joshua Qiao, toured of the cafeteria to determine health and safety standards implemented. Nine Masters follows a set of twenty-one steps to ensure the health standards of all food in the cafeteria, broken down into five main categories:
- Food – including transportation, storage and cleaning procedures, as well as temperatures while heating food;
- Facilities – license, access control, cameras, sanitation, pest/rat prevention;
- Operation – separating raw material and cooked food, with a separate knife for each;
- Staff – ensuring health certificates and daily health checks, and that all staff wash their hands and wear personal protective equipment;
- Procedure – such as cleaning procedures, and storage temperature and time.
Nine Masters also very carefully marks expiration dates of all products bought, and have a separate room for washing/cutting meat and then vegetables. The cafeteria does a health check every morning and any staff who is sick is not allowed to enter the kitchen. However during the tour, OCA noticed that the pest control lights, which are placed all around the cafeteria, were off in the meat section. The staff insisted it was due to a power cut, and OCA did note that the pest control lights were on in other rooms.
Last year, the problem with the safety procedure was that there was a lack of staff available to monitor the steps are being implemented. This year, the chefs are putting more focus on this issue, and at least one new staff member has been added to every section who is responsible solely for overlooking the safety process. The chefs and workers are also in the process of standardizing the safety procedures for all sections of the cafeteria. 70% of the ingredients and supplies used in the cafeteria come from Nine Masters, while 30% is purchased from Metro C&C to pass health regulations set up by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Last year, the Chinese and Western sections of the cafeteria only served four dishes per meal, but this year, students and faculty can choose from eight different dishes during lunch and dinner. Moreover, this year the cafeteria is trying to place more focus on culture by hosting at least four theme-based days a year, which will involve decorating the cafeteria and providing new types of food for celebration. For example, on Sept. 14 the cafeteria was decorated and provided special food for Mid-Autumn Festival, a national Chinese holiday.
Last year, the price of Strictly Cookies in the second floor cafe was increased to 12 RMB because Strictly Cookies increased the purchase price for wholesale buyers. This year, the sale of Strictly Cookies in the cafe has been stopped. It was discovered that Strictly Cookies does not follow new Chinese regulations regarding guarantee of information about suppliers, which made their sale in the cafe illegal.
Other changes to the cafeteria have included the addition of a Japanese rice chef to improve the rice dish stand, more variety of condiments available for students to add to their soup if needed (previously the condiments were pre-added), and the removal of MSG from all food served in the cafeteria. Moreover, none of the food served in the second floor cafe contains GMO oil or MSG.
The Chefs and members of the cafeteria are usually in contact with the school administration, the Facilities Department, and the department of University Communications to get feedback, concerns, and suggestions. However, communication with the students of NYU Shanghai as well as the Student Government currently appears limited.
On Sept. 7, the cafeteria hosted a “Food Taste Spot” that allowed students to try, for free, new dishes the cafeteria would like to begin serving, including two new types of dessert and dimsum and six new western and Chinese dishes. The table attracted several members of the NYU Shanghai community and was well-received.
“The quality of the food was definitely better than average cafeteria food, and it was more diverse too – not just Chinese food,” said NYU Shanghai sophomore Savannah Billman. “Everyone seemed to enjoy it and a lot of people chose to eat the new food rather than the normal lunch being served in the cafeteria right behind us.”
While the new chefs were aware of the boycott before taking the job, publicity about the topic seemed to be low and rather sensitive, and much information about the impact of the boycott and how it has changed the chefs’ agenda for the cafeteria was not obtained.
New Cafeteria Committee
A new cafeteria reform committee (Cafeteria Committee), composed of students, faculty, and administration, has been established on campus. This committee is separate from the FSRC which was only composed of students and is an ad-hoc committee under SLR in Student Government. While final details about the committee are still emerging, the structure is as follows: 1-2 representatives from Campus Facilities, 1 Western faculty, 1 Chinese faculty, 4 students (SLR Director Millie Wong; SLR Assistant Director Wenxin (Cheryl) Feng; former FSRC member Andreas Strandgaard; Class of 2020 Representative Aman Garg), a representative from Human Resources, a representative from the Finance department, and the current manager from Nine Masters.
With the aim of increasing communication and transparency between NYU Shanghai students and the cafeteria, the committee is currently focusing on clearing up issues and complaints about the cafeteria first in order to build trust, and then continue to make new improvements. Current ideas being discussed include:
- monthly themes/schedules
- season and provincial menus
- cooking classes taught by the Chefs
- Halal section providing breakfast
- Afternoon tea/lunch box
Nine Masters, the company currently running the cafeteria and second floor cafe, are under contract till Aug. 2017.
This article was written by Lathika Chandra Mouli. Please send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
Illustration Credit: Gabriela Naumnik