Standard journalism practice is to build up the underdog and take the leader down a peg or two. A visit to the Ready for the World Café (University Center, 1502 W. Cumberland Ave) might brace us for a dose of the former, since the venue is run entirely by students. On the other hand the café's buffet lunch (the only meal it serves) costs $11, placing it in one of the higher echelons of the Knoxville buffet spread. Even given the absence of tax and service charge it's something of a challenge to view this as value for money.
Now in its third semester, the café—open from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., Monday to Thursday—is run by eight students studying either hotel, restaurant, and tourism or nutrition courses. These eager young things take turns week by week to boss around their classmates in the name of running the buffet restaurant tucked away in the Hermitage Room on the third floor of the University Center, from menu-planning and costing to marketing (although the last of these is presumably their weakest suit, since the place remains a reasonably well-preserved secret).
The $11 will grant you access to a good half-dozen main hot dishes, a very fresh mainstream salad bar, soft drinks, desserts, and coffee.
The cooking itself is delegated to Aramark, the catering behemoth. Presumably one of the key benefits of using a corporation to prepare food is that it guarantees consistency. Aramark fails here. The kitchen produces a few delights, but just as numerous are the second-rate dishes, and a number of attempts are gently dreadful. The triumphs come, we sense, despite the corporate oversight, not because of it, and the students' enthusiasm and dedication deserves a more worthy partner in the enterprise.
The food is at its best when at its most simple. A good suite of tempura vegetables, brittle and tasty, is very enjoyable, as are the straightforward kebabs. A slightly more ambitious seafood pasta, however—somewhat erroneously described as a lasagne—drowns a little in its admittedly delicious cream sauce. Similarly, an adequately cooked but rather dull-looking chicken in an erratic fruit jus could most charitably be described as a commendable near-miss. Brownies, coffees, and cake are all confidently dispatched.
The excitement of seeing the stove and pan for crepes-suzette was quickly tempered by the discovery that these items were for heating, not preparing. (Conceivably, given the suspicious uniformity of the crepes, these were bought.) It turns out even heating could not be relied upon; my request for one to be freshly prepared was met with the disarmingly frank, "It's a little too much trouble to do them on demand." The result of this policy is inevitably soggy—a crepe without crepeiness.
A return visit the following week is happier. The proceedings are enlivened by a jazz band, and the offerings are up a notch or two. Top of the heap is a really exceptional curried fish dish—a sophisticated melange in which the delicacy of the fish is perfectly balanced by its brittle coating. Equally fun is an absolutely delicious Mediterranean lamb dish with almonds and fruit.
At $5 a head, this place would be a real find. Are the prices inflated artificially to keep wanton undergraduates from filling their boots? At its current rates I can't recommend the experience as anything more than a curiosity. The food is simply too erratic, and when the kitchen gets it wrong, it gets it badly wrong. The students' key failure here is in not insisting that their chefs personally taste each dish—standard practice, one might have fondly imagined. Any executive chef who sampled the unbelievably tough beef tips or the astonishingly dry breaded lamb chops and declared them fit for public consumption should be fired for incompetence, and any executive chef who failed to sample them should be fired for laziness.
It's a shame that the students suffer because of the hardened cynicism of the professionals. Then again, if the purpose of the café is to ensure students receive from the experience a realistic working environment then the venture can be considered a success, since this is exactly the type of indifference these graduates will have to put up with in the real world.
As so often in life, the young are let down by the old. What these students have in abundance is passion, a passion that even a generation-wide epidemic of head-ducking cannot hide. We can only hope that a small portion of this can be preserved in all its purity.