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Like many of today’s top eateries, NIU’s student-run restaurant Ellington’s features seasonal and locally sourced food. That’s not just because it’s trendy; it’s because it makes good business sense.
“Our goal is for students to learn and understand how to make the best of what’s in season and what’s local. It’s a smart financial aspect to running a restaurant. There’s no point in spending an excessive amount of money bringing ingredients in,” said Chef Bryan Flower, Food Systems Lab Coordinator for NIU’s Family, Consumer & Nutrition Sciences program.
Since a three-course lunch meal at Ellington’s is $10, and the goal is to get 50 percent back, using ingredients that are available and are going to reduce costs, Flower explained.
Students in the program get six weeks to prepare for the opening of Ellington’s, which is located in the Holmes Student Center and is named after the American jazz great Duke Ellington, who gave his final performance in the adjacent ball room. They learn how to work with a set amount of ingredients to make nutritious and cost-effective menus. They are tasked with building a menu around one fruit and one vegetable that is in season for the duration of the semester. One of those two ingredients must be included in each dish of the three courses — a starter, an entrée and a dessert. Proteins are pork, chicken, salmon or other lake fish, foodstuffs typically available in the area.
Flower takes locally sourced food seriously. He and his wife own and operate a farm south of DeKalb where they raise cattle, goats, hogs and chickens, and keep a greenhouse as well. He brings his students to the farm for a tour each semester.
“It helps them to see where food really comes from,” Flower said. “By seeing the farm, I hope to bring them back to earth.”
There are two separate menus, one for Tuesday and one for Thursday, with the student groups selecting everything for the dining experience from table settings to the menu themes. For example, the fall semester features Two’s A Pear with menu items including pear and cauliflower; and Zesty Brassica featuring oranges and Brussels sprouts.
Since half of the students in the program are studying nutrition — the others are studying hospitality — making healthy fare part of the menu is key.
Nutrition students come to the Ellington’s already understanding the principles of food science, explains Josephine Umoren, coordinator of NIU’s Nutrition Dietetics & Hospitality Management program. Their experience at Ellington’s allows them to apply those principles on a larger scale.
Ellington’s menus must include heart-healthy choices that are low in calories. Students learn how analyze their menus for nutrients, as well as make nutritional food tasty and well presented.
“Taste is very important if people aren’t eating the food they aren’t getting the nutrients,” Dr. Umoren said.
Visit Ellington’s website to learn more or make a lunch reservation.