Dorm food gets schooled

Saul Sutcher prepares gourmet meals for fellow students at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. He's pictured at Cheese Board Pizza in Berkeley, where he worked during the summer.
(Kim Kulish / For The Times)

Duck confit, pancetta-wrapped quail, butter-poached lobster tails, fried zucchini blossoms -- not exactly how most collegians are expecting to dine when they head back to their school dormitories this fall. But those are some of the dishes that may again delight the denizens of Norris Hall at Occidental College in Eagle Rock come this semester.

Occidental junior Saul Sutcher is heading back to school with his ’87 Volvo packed full of his cooking equipment and dishes. Without objection from the school administration, he’ll again be setting up for Café Norris, preparing three-course gourmet meals served in the dormitory’s common room most Saturday nights.

Home this summer in his native Berkeley, he used the same concept on Sunday nights at the Cheese Board Pizza shop with the same results -- full houses and rave reviews. (The cafe-shop is an annex of the Cheese Board Cooperative his dad has been a part of since 1979.)

The original impetus for Sutcher’s mini-restaurant was the bane of all college students who have developed any sort of palate by the time they journey to college -- dorm food. “I just couldn’t handle it,” says the 20-year-old economics-physics major. “There’s nothing worse than overcooked, unseasoned pasta that lies on the plate as mush.

“I’ve visited about 15 other schools, and Occidental’s dorm food is the best I’ve tasted,” Sutcher says. “But after a week of that kind of stuff, I started eating off-campus as much as I could afford and thinking about doing something better.”

Returning home after his freshman year, it didn’t take him long to get accepted into the summer intern program at Eccolo, a high-end trattoria under the direction of chef Christopher Lee, formerly of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. “Working at a restaurant where everything is made from scratch was fantastic. It was amazing to see how much work went into each plate,” he says. “They even made their own prosciutto and salume.”

Sutcher did the typical work of a rookie knave, wrapping chickens for rotisserie, cleaning squid and putting the final touches on desserts. But in the process he learned basics such as managing his time so he could turn out several dishes simultaneously and always keeping his knives sharpened and his station clean. “Working at Eccolo was as much educational as inspirational,” he says.

Tools of the trade

Back at Occidental for his sophomore year, Sutcher quickly realized how much he missed the taste of his favorite Eccolo dishes like the wild boar ragú with handmade pasta. And he missed cooking too. On his first visit back home, he gathered his pasta pot, knives, cutting board and other essential kitchen tools and brought them back to school, where he started making pasta dishes for his friends in the dorm kitchenette.

“Eight of us would eat together almost every week” (mostly from plastic plates and with a hodgepodge of utensils). That gave me the idea that I wanted to do a cafe second semester. Nobody used the kitchen, so that was never a problem."His parents gave him a set of pots and pans for Christmas, and he bought plates, bowls and glasses from Ikea and tables from an ad on Craigslist.

He got white tablecloths, candles and a partner too, Elissa Chandler, a fellow student and cooking enthusiast who heads up Occidental’s organic gardening club. They set an opening date and created an online reservation system. The rule was that only Occidental students and professors could come, and they suggested a $10 donation to cover their costs.

Sutcher recalls, “Saturday morning at 6 a.m. we’d drive to the Santa Monica farmers market where we always found the fishmonger, a beef guy and a ton of good produce. After stocking up there, we’d go to Marconda at the 3rd and Fairfax Farmers Market for any additional meats we needed, and we’d finish off at the Whole Foods across the street.” Because they had no pantry space, just about everything had to be bought on the day of each cafe night -- butter, eggs, flour. “We’d get back at noon and cook the whole day to serve at 7:30,” Sutcher says.

The first meal was pancetta-wrapped quail, butternut squash and ricotta ravioli, and tarte aux pommes for dessert. It was a hit, and Café Norris quickly took off from there. The food writer of the college’s Occidental Weekly was among the opening night diners and a two-page spread followed.

Sutcher says he became a campus celebrity. “I’d be stopped on campus sometimes 20 times in a day. It was like, ‘Oh, Chef Saul! You’re doing that cafe. I wish I would have thought of that.’ ”

Like father, like son

Sutcher and Chandler soon expanded to 20 from 15 and raised the donation request to $20. Preparation became a bit more challenging. “We’re always thinking about execution since we don’t have a professional kitchen with a lot of burners. We can’t turn out 20 seared steaks at the same time, so we love braises and ragús that we can put together in one big pot and serve with our fresh pasta. There aren’t many dishes that can beat a good pasta.”

They staged Café Norris on 11 Saturdays and came close to covering their costs. “I think we educated kids, broadened their palates, and, of course, satisfied our own tastes,” Sutcher says. “Everybody realized it was a great break from dorm food, something special for Saturday night.”

Back home in Berkeley this summer, he asked his dad to help him get permission to use the pizza cafe two doors down from the Cheese Board shop. Cheese Board Pizza opened in 1990, spawned by the Cheese Board cooperative, which sells about 300 varieties of cheese as well as house-baked baguettes and buns.

Saul’s dad, Steve, had worked part-time at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in his high school and college years, but after studying work collectives at Hampshire College, in 1979 he chose to work at the cheese store instead of the fabled restaurant just across Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.

The co-op’s 59 members rotate administrative, retail, and baking duties, and all decisions are made by vote or consensus.

When Steve asked the staff for permission for his son to use the pizza cafe, which is closed on Sundays, there was no opposition. Many of the members have known Saul since his dad carried him in a baby backpack while helping customers at the counter.

Sutcher duplicated his Occidental cafe in Berkeley, calling it Café 20 and partnering with his brothers, 16-year-old Lieb as sous chef and 12-year-old Jesse as maitre d’. The response was spectacular, with mostly friends and co-op members hurrying to make their reservations two weeks in advance. “One week we filled all the reservations 38 seconds after we opened online registration,” Saul says.

Game plan

Chef Saul handled the pizza shop setting deftly during the summer. After his experience working with the limitations of cooking in the dorm, he easily adapted his menus to a kitchen with a small stove (and seven pizza ovens). Among his dishes this summer were roasted halibut in parchment with tomatoes and basil; Catalan meatballs; and tarte aux myrtille (blueberry tart) with house-made vanilla bean ice cream, one of brother Lieb’s specialties.

For this semester’s Café Norris, the dishes he’s planning include braised goat, rabbit medallions and salad of house-cured anchovy with toasts, and he’s hoping the Occidental administration will not interfere.

On the last day of school in May, signs appeared in dormitory kitchenettes stating they were to be used only for warming foods.

“I’m confident we can work something out if there are any problems,” Saul says. “Our effort is one of the few student-generated projects on campus, and it’s a community-builder. We have a big following and great support from the resident advisors in the dorm.”

And as for returning to yet another year of dorm food, he says, “I’ve got to say this diplomatically. It will be hard to choke down that stuff when I can still taste the butter-poached lobster tail from last semester’s Café Norris.”