There’s a decent chance that the only place in Oneonta, N.Y., to get a bowl of authentic Vietnamese pho is in a residential dining hall of the city’s SUNY (State University of New York) campus. Pho—a hearty noodle soup—is just one of the choices at the newly opened Lemon Grass Kitchen station in SUNY Oneonta’s Mills Dining Hall.
Lemon Grass is a concept created by celebrity Chef Mai Pham and the SUNY Oneonta location is the first of the concept’s units to open in a residential dining operation operated by management company Sodexo.
"Students are absolutely ecstatic," says Jimmy Hamm II, Sodexo’s general manager for SUNY Oneonta Dining Services, who believes that the concept accords well with the increasing food savvy and experience with different cuisines modern college students possess. "Our residential offerings are greatly enhanced with the addition of Lemon Grass Kitchen [and] this program delivers on the expectation that when they come to dine with us on campus, they can find big flavors, global cuisines and great vegetarian options."
Mills Hall Unit Manager Rich Babbit is certainly happy with the new option in his venue. "The appealing look, the distinctive sound of wok cooking and, of course, the succulent smell are indicative of great-tasting food and the students are loving it," he says.
Pham, who has launched over 20 locations of her retail brand Star Ginger nationwide, says she saw an exciting opportunity in extending her offerings to college residential dining with the Lemon Grass brand.
"We're really fortunate to be partnering with the visionary team at Oneonta," she offers. "From noodle soups that we make in front of students, to the customizable rice bowls with Thai barbecue chicken, Korean beef or lemon grass tofu, our food is crave-worthy, healthy and authentic. While our core is Vietnamese and Thai flavors, our menu cycle is quite expansive with dishes from Korea, Japan, Singapore and India."
A lot of care and preparation has gone into ensuring that the dishes served at Lemon Grass Kitchen meet Pham’s standards
"We're passionate about training," says Tina Freedman, the vice president of operations who leads development and training for Lemon Grass Kitchen and Star Ginger. "We work very closely with our partners making sure the operation is set up for success."
To that end, SUNY Oneonta Auxiliary Services and Sodexo teams spent last summer redesigning a corner servery in Mills Hall into a brightly lit, high-energy space with touches such as adorning the back walls with striking images of noodle bowls and fresh herbs.
"The design touches, the cooking and the aromas of food, they all breathe new life," said Rebecca Molloy, operations director of dining services at SUNY Oneonta. "The station has really transformed. Students are greeted with steaming pots of broths, sumptuous toppings, sizzling and crackling hot woks and an enticing display of savory specials of the day."