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The Art of Carmichael Stir-Fry

The great “Carmichael versus Dewick” debate has been the subject of both friendly and fierce rivalry for at least as long as any senior can remember — and the question won’t be resolved anytime soon. While it can be said that Dewick−MacPhie is traditionally known as the more diverse eatery, Carmichael’s legendary stir−fry nights have nevertheless given it a competitive edge. Here’s a look at the logistics and creativity behind the tradition, and a glance forward at what may soon cross Jumbo diners’ plates.

With al dente noodles, chicken breast, sprouts, mushrooms and a dash of chili tossed to order with sauce, it is no wonder that Carmichael regularly pulls in between 900−1,000 students on Tuesday and Thursday nights as the Expo Station burns through up to 90 pounds of chicken and over four gallons of teriyaki sauce.

According to Carmichael Chef Manager Peter Kourafalos, stir−fry night was born from a 2003 concept that brought an Asian−style stir−fry night to the dining hall on Tuesdays and a Mediterranean one on Thursdays.

“The stir−fry itself happened when we realized that we had an empty station there and we wondered how best it could be utilized,” Kourafalos said. Stir−fry proved to be a good bet. Cooking foods ‘a la minute’ continues to be popular on all sides — it won over the student crowd, while Kourafalos and his staff felt, and still feel, similarly about the nifty new concept.

“We love to do it because it’s a monotony breaker,” Kourafalos said. “It goes astray from the difficult foods — for example, if you’re not interested in what’s in the menu, you might walk to the station to create your own dish.”

The mechanics behind stir−fry are simple. Students line up with a bowl of fresh ingredients — whether they are raw bell peppers, diced onions, shallots, spinach or ginger — and hand them over to the chefs. The white−coated magicians, in turn, toss the ingredients together with the students’ choice of either white sticky rice or noodles and a sauce of either peanut, teriyaki or chili garlic. For meats, Carmichael usually offers a selection of chicken breast, beef and shrimp. Presto!

On the other side of the counter, though, putting together the combinations of protein, starch and vegetables from memory can be a difficult feat — the station’s chef typically keeps three orders in mind at the same time.

The line cooks usually handle it with finesse, according to Kourafalos. In fact, for one of his station’s proteges, Second Cook Sahra Warsame, the juggling act is not only a breeze but a period of gratification.

“Stir−fry has always been my favorite part,” Warsame said. “I knew everyone, and I enjoyed getting to know the students by their usual [orders]… what they want and like.”

The long queue, she said, is a compliment for the wok−wielding chefs. “It’s so nice that people would line up for 20 minutes for stir−fry,” Warsane noted.

Hungry diners have come up with some crazy combinations, and Wasarme said she is happy to fulfill any special requests. Still though, Jumbo appetites have been known to baffle.

“One time someone came up to me with a bowl of salad and said, ‘Can you add this in the stir−fry?’ It was confusing, but I figured they really liked it that way,” Warsame said. “And then another came up to me asking to create a stir−fry with no sauce at all. How is that even possible?”

Since her promotion to second cook, Warsame now stays largely behind the scenes on stir−fry night, supervising and aiding in the preparation side of things.

However, she still looks forward to her once−a−week opportunity at the Expo Station.

“It makes the time go faster, as we’re here at the station for nearly three hours,” she said.

Time, in fact, has passed by quickly for the stir−fry tradition. At its inception, the stir−fry menu offered nine sauces. That dwindled to three when the chefs realized that each dish was not as readily gobbled up as the next.

“Cantonese sauce used to be one of our favorites,” Warsame said. “We also had plum sauce, but not everybody liked plum. It was the same with orange ginger — that was a little too sweet.”

Whatever evolution has edged out in the sauce department, the stir−fry gods have more than made up for in Carmichael’s selection of vegetables, which at this point stands at a solid 10.

Stir−fry and beyond

Stir−fry’s success has led the way to a myriad of other innovations from the wizards behind Carmichael’s menu.

The now−defunct “Wing−It!” station, for example, was born out of this experimentation. The feature took flight soon after Stir fry did, offering various sauces for their honey−barbeque and Buffalo wings. One of these sauces, the fiendishly spicy “Inner Beauty,” was derived from Central Square’s East Coast Grill. Here at Carmichael, the recipe honored the original with the exception of a few tweaks.

“We incorporated canola oil instead of peanut oil because it could accommodate more students with allergies,” Kourafalos said.

As it turned out, wings were not the only hot items in the menu line−up to be introduced as temporary fixtures on the Carmichael scene. Kourafalos and his team were able to test other concepts, most of which were met with immense success — a burrito bar, for example.

“We must have rolled around 800 burritos that night,” he remembered. “Students loved it so much and made comments on the board. So right after we did it then we came up with the item on the menu the next fall.”

From then on, the new inventions increased in frequency — Jumbos have seen such innovations as a “chicken and waffles” station, a crepe station and a particularly thrilling addition to the dessert station, Bananas Foster Flambe.

“I used to do [the Bananas Foster] tableside in a restaurant I worked before Tufts,” Kourafalos said. “We tried that on Caribbean night, and it was a great show. We flambeed the sauce with a flame, browned the sugar, butter, etc. — the students loved that.”

It is no surprise that Kourafalos is hard at work at some new concepts, most of which are top−secret. However, he reveals a couple that he has in the back−burner. Bibimbap, a signature Korean rice, vegetable, egg and meat dish, is on the docket, he said, along with a recipe of the Carmichael staff’s own creation.

“It’s called the ‘Fast and the Fresh,'” he revealed. “A black and blue salad which was sort of a mesculin green salad with Cajun blackened chicken, blue cheese and a nice vinaigrette that accompanied it.”

Another idea is a creative marriage between a Mexican burrito and Asian sushi — a riff, perhaps, on a Korean taco.

“Sushi is also very popular, but there’s the problem of raw fish,” he said. “So we’re trying to come up with a way of doing an Asian−inspired burrito that doesn’t come with it.”

Kourafalos hopes these items, like the concepts before them, will be enough to please the new breed of intellectual foodies, for their appreciation of the food is what he enjoys most.

“The thing I love most is when I see the students’ reaction when they love a particular dish,” Kourafalos said. “… Like the first time we did Bananas Foster — getting the reaction of how happy it made them was and is a big part of the excitement I get out of it.”

– Jon Cheng

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