By Rachel Royster | Copy Desk Chief
After spending 18 years with someone feeding you hot, home-cooked meals with love and care, dining hall food is a palate shock. Most freshmen stick it out until their sophomore year, where they’re dropped headfirst into the real world of fending for themselves at the grocery store.
Houston sophomore Gray Campbell said he quickly got bored of having the same meals over and over at the start of his second year in college. He said he wanted to take the new opportunity to cook for himself head on and create exciting meals that make the experience more thrilling.
“It really started because I watched Wolfgang Puck on Masterclass make a steak and I saw that and was like, ‘That looks fun and it looks delicious,’” said Campbell. “It came out very ‘OK,’ but it was fun.”
Once he got his feet under him in the kitchen, he ventured out from steak, making homemade pop tarts, fried rice, bagels and fajitas. Through his cooking, he said he’s been able to discover more exciting things he likes to eat — a big change from his childhood as a picky eater.
“It’s more fun, and it’s more fulfilling to be creative and try to come up with your own recipes,” Campbell said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I found this on the internet, and then I made it,’ but instead this came from my brain, and it’s delicious.”
Oklahoma City freshman Kieran Mace was also a picky eater growing up, which prompted her to start spending time in the kitchen with her mom. Eventually, she found a passion for the skill and has used that to her benefit rather than her dining plan.
“I love steak and potatoes,” Mace said. “I’ll make it in my dorm room all the time. People are like, ‘What?’ but it’s relatively easy to cook a steak, and it’s good.”
While it may seem like an expensive lifestyle, Mace says it’s much more cost-effective than a dining plan, and that it’s all about how you spend your money at the grocery store.
“So say I buy chicken breasts. I can cook grilled chicken with avocado or chicken and rice or cajun chicken pasta. There is a long list of things I can cook with that, so that’s a staple because I can make it in a lot of different ways,” Mace said. “Same thing with ground beef. I can make spaghetti, lasagna, tacos and casserole.”
While Floresville junior Dhruv Ramesh hasn’t yet made a steak dinner for himself, he said he still enjoys coming home after a stressful day to make himself a meal. He said it’s a nice way to get your mind off of something and start problem-solving since he rarely uses recipes.
“When we were bored at home, my brother and I would find the weirdest combinations of food and things to throw together,” Ramesh said. “That’s how I really found my cooking style. I just throw some things together with what I have, and it somehow tastes good.”
He’s found the process of using whatever he has works well and has come up with a few favorites.
“I enjoy making some rice, putting that down on a plate, finding some meat like turkey or chicken to put over it and then I’ll make some sort of random sauce. I like to buy pesto and mix it with some mayonnaise or sour cream to make pesto aioli to put that on top of it,” Ramesh said. “It’s pretty good but random, like you wouldn’t really find a recipe for it.”
Montgomery junior Chris Hymel has also discovered a knack for cooking since coming to college.
“I enjoyed having home-cooked meals since it’s a little bit of home in college,” Hymel said. “I also noticed really quickly that the dining halls don’t know how to use salt, so I wanted to have flavor to my food. I also get to say, ‘I’m craving this today, let me just make it,’ instead of going to a dining hall and they have hamburgers and cold fries and that’s what I used my dining hall pass for.”
Instead of sticking inside the lines of American food, he has expanded his repertoire of meals to dishes from Japan, China, Italy, Israel, Germany, Hungary and India and said he wants to continue to discover even more cultures.
“The exploration of it is the most exciting thing,” Hymel said. “Because what if you try something, and it becomes one of your favorite things? You could have just never ended up trying it.”
Bradenton, Fla., freshman Katie Carlsen also enjoys the creative outlet that spending time in the kitchen allows, but primarily enjoys baking the most. She said it has been a connection her and her mom have, especially since they both majored in art. She uses baking as a way to cheer people up.
“Recently, my best friend’s grandma passed away,” Carlsen said. “She’s gluten-free and a picky eater, and her family has a whole lot of eating restrictions. I know what her family can and can’t eat, so I was able to make them food while they were mourning and weren’t up to cooking or going out…I really feel like that brought us together and loved being able to bring them food and help them through a tough time.”
When she does cook, she spends most of her time making Chinese food or at least utilizing the same techniques and flavors into other dishes.
“I had eight teachers throughout the 11 years I took Mandarin, and each teacher was from a different part of China, and we would cook in those classes. There’s not a lot of people taking Mandarin, so we would be able to go in the kitchen and the four of us would cook. It was cool to get to learn how to make Chinese food from an actual person from China.”
While some say cooking seems like a daunting challenge, others say it pays off quickly once you learn more and more.
“It’s a journey,” Hymel said. “You’re not going to get really good at cooking really fast. Just don’t be afraid to try things, find someone to do it with you and then it’s a learning experience for both of you. Even if it turns out awful, you’ll end up laughing through it and making it a fun time. Don’t be scared or afraid to make progress.”
Hitting bumps along the way is natural, Mace said.
“Don’t get too worried about things when they don’t work,” she said. “It can be a lot of stress and it can be really discouraging when things don’t turn out the way you want. You just have to keep it moving. Most things will turn out great, but some things won’t. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad cook, it just means it was a bad experience.”