Ask pretty much anybody what they’re most excited for when they go home for break, and you’ll hear the same few things: showering without shoes (something we’ve all come to realize is an indispensable luxury), their own bed (so long, egg–crate mattress pad—you’ll definitely not be missed), and the food. 

After being at school for any significant amount of time, you might begin to resent Hill House’s ubiquitous strips of beef, or feel your heart drop when you scan the menu for something, anything, only to realize that it’s another night of chicken and vegetables. There might be nothing wrong with dining hall food whatsoever, but home is where the heart is, because home is where the food is. Nothing about swiping into a dining hall compares to walking in the house knowing that your favorite dinner is on the docket for tonight, especially when it’s made by someone you love.

The food we’re used to from home serves as the ultimate comfort: Cross–culturally, food is recognized to be a signifier of identity, and a mode of support that we associate with our community. For those from cultures typically unrecognized in institutionalized dining (read: essentially every culture besides generalized American, Italian, and Old–El–Paso–Taco–Seasoning–Mix Mexican), finding this comfort in a school setting can be tricky. 

In 2019, Pam Lampett, director of hospitality and business services, decided to do something about it. She created Penn Cooks, a program that seeks to introduce authentic cultural food into the dining hall experience, taking cues from guest chefs, cultural centers on campus, and the diversity of the student body itself. 

Since its founding, Penn Cooks has brought in guest chefs to celebrate a number of cultural occasions. For October’s LGBTQ History Month, the program featured Liz Alpern, a queer chef who brought modern Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine to our dining halls via recipes in her book Gefilte Manifesto. For the Lunar New Year, the program emphasized Pan–Asian cuisine and traditions. The Penn Dragon Dancers performed, and they worked with PAACH [the Pan–Asian American Community Center] to authenticate recipes and really appreciate the Pan–Asian community. 

The Lunar New Year celebration has been a big hit since year one, when the program hosted Henry Chow, whose family owns the Chinatown eatery Sang Kee Peking Duck House. The celebration featured the Penn Lions, a student dance group that performs traditional Chinese Lion dances. In incorporating student groups as well as outside contributors, Penn Dining hopes to bring the students themselves into the dining experience, with Lea–Kruger explaining, “The Penn Lions are a good example of what we’re trying to do: we know that our students are highly involved in dancing and singing, so that passion is something we wanted to tap into. We’re open to anything that fits under the umbrella of PennCooks, which is culture, community, and cuisine.”

Community, culture and cuisine all merged for that first Lunar New Year, where Chow, who is a Penn alum, contributed recipes to the celebration and came to talk with students at his alma mater. Barbara Lea–Kruger, director of communications for hospitality and business services, recalls the event fondly, saying, “He was actually part of the student group that started the dragon dancers when he was here. He started the Dragon Dancers, he’s from here in Philadelphia, his family owns a restaurant. When he came to talk, students were banging out questions to Henry: ‘What did you think about MATH 104?’. It was tangible for them—here they saw themselves, four or five years out of school.” 

This type of conversation is exactly what Lea–Kruger and Lampett were aiming for with the Penn Cooks program: not only to provide students with a source of comfort through food that is dear to them, but also to humanize the dining experience and leave students with a sense of support that lasts long after their plates are scraped clean. “The following year, when we were in the heart of the pandemic, we did the food, and a graduate student emailed me saying that last year was so special to him,” Kruger explains. “He said it was special because it made him feel like home—that type of food and event was extremely comforting to him. We want students to find comfort: we’re here as a support system for the students, not just [to provide] food,” Kruger says.

Lampett’s goals to create a robust support system for students with Penn Cooks also reach beyond the kitchen. Guest chefs also get involved in the academic facet of student life, with the most recent guest Kevin Curry running a podcast focusing on possible student career paths. Later in the week, Curry was planning on sitting down with the African–American cultural center MAKUU at ARCH to discuss the intersection of his career with his cultural identity. The program represents the intersectionality of culture, cuisine, and career. For example, Chow studied business and never expected to be back in the restaurant game. However, with that experience under his belt, he’s able to come back to Penn and pass along what he’s learned to the next generation of students. Regarding the alumni that have been involved in the program, Kruger says, “They’re all very excited to come back.” 

When asked about his interest in the Penn Cooks program, Curry emphasized the connection between his heritage and his culinary career goals. “The most important thing that I’ve seen, especially within the wellness space, is that representation matters. We don’t see a lot of black chefs and black cooks in the wellness space, in terms of nutritious cooking, so it’s always been an extreme honor and opportunity to step into that space and show that black and BIPOC communities actually care just as much about our health and wellness as every other community. The fact that, as a black man, I can be in the role of sharing food that’s good for people while being full–flavored is an incredible thing,” Curry says. 

This visibility is especially important for typically marginalized communities whose cuisine might not be represented in traditional dining halls, and can be hard to come by for those without a platform like Curry’s. This led to another development for the Penn Cooks program, in which the kitchen staff was invited to create a cookbook featuring their own recipes and serve their cultural favorites to students.

“We have guest chefs, but our day–to–day staff is really who we want to continue to highlight, acknowledge, and represent,” explains Lampett. “Throughout the month of February, we took recipes from our staff and highlighted the staff, with their picture and history. They love it—they really enjoy sharing favorites of theirs with their students, and the food and culture that they grew up with, which ties everything very nicely together,” she says. 

The exchange of personal recipes bolsters the support system that the dining staff hopes to embody for the students. Food is all the more meaningful when you understand the person behind it, and knowing a piece of the chef’s culinary history makes the students feel closer to the staff as well. 

From here, it’s on and up for Penn Cooks. They have high hopes for March, as Women’s History Month, and are looking to collaborate with alum Ellen Yin, owner of the downtown eatery The Fork, for a sustainable meal while getting campus EcoReps involved. The goal is to continue their mission of connecting students with their community and, on a broader scale, culture, using the one thing that we all love: food. It’s an essential part of being human, and not just biologically—food is a critical indicator of social relationships, groups, and institutions, and being away from home, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and ungrounded. The comfort that food can provide to us as not only nourishment, but also as a stable entity amid a rapidly changing world, is indispensable.