Adventures in Dorm Cooking

Phil Liu '19 is known among faculty and staff as an outstanding practical joker. But when it comes to preparing dinner in his dorm, he's not kidding around.
 

This past year, Liu was probably the only Gunnery student who had mastered the art of the dorm soufflé. He also kept a pasta machine – the old-fashioned kind used to crank out thin ribbons of linguine by hand – at the ready, so he could practice his pasta-making techniques in between taking A.P. courses in art, English language, and Environmental Science.

Reflecting on his adventures in dorm cooking over the past four years, Liu recalled that when he arrived at The Gunnery as a freshman, he was surprised to find he did not have access to a kitchen of some sort in his dorm. “The only thing I found was a microwave,” he said. So he improvised, producing small batches of chicken wings, barbecue skewers, steak, and ramen noodles in the microwave in the common room at Teddy House.

“I like pizza but I can't eat it six days a week,” he said, going on to explain that by spring of his freshman year, he had joined the Outdoor Club. The co-curricular program brought with it an opportunity to explore the trails in nearby Steep Rock, and cook outside on a portable grill. Every Wednesday afternoon, the club would have a little cookout on the lawn next to Teddy House using camping stoves provided by Becca Leclerc, Director of the Outdoor Program. Liu also borrowed a grill from mandarin teacher Tanya Nongera, who at the time was a dorm parent in Teddy, which he used to prepare vegetarian dishes and make desserts.

Last summer, when he wasn't busy preparing for his SATs, Liu began working on a portfolio dedicated to the art of cooking. He designed and prepared his own recipes, which are included in the portfolio, along with his own photographs of each dish, such as an appetizer platter presented as a colorful pinwheel of tantalizing treats.

This year, the portfolio was part of his application to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, which he will attend in the fall. “But doing this thing I'm passionate about is really fun,” said Liu, who completed a 10-day summer program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. “I learned all the basic techniques for stocks, pasta-making, braising, sautéing,” he said.

While visiting his family at home in Shanghai, Liu spent several weekends pursuing his interest in the historical cuisine of Southeast China. A family friend who owns a restaurant in Anhui province was developing recipes from translations of Chinese literature and poems and together they prepared those dishes for the restaurant's patrons to enjoy. Liu said the dishes featured fresh vegetables they gathered from the local farmer's market and a “daily catch” from the river.

He also found time to work in an Italian restaurant, 1921 Gucci, in Shanghai. “That was a fun experience,” Liu said. “I learned how to make six different kinds of pasta. I remember the first day in the kitchen, I cut mushrooms for four hours.”

Returning to The Gunnery last fall armed with his newly improved culinary skills, Liu was granted occasional use of a full kitchen in Memorial, where he prepared a few elaborate dinners for his dormmates and faculty guests. For one dorm dinner, his menu included roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables, ribeye steak (his favorite) and berry clafouti served with vanilla ice cream.

This past winter, he bought a pasta machine back to campus and prepared handmade linguine, laying the noodles out to dry on a wooden rack in his dorm room. Pointing to a photograph of his impromptu pasta drying station, Liu noted that since did not have a rolling pin on hand, he had used a glass water bottle to roll out the dough. “We also made soufflés as a dorm activity,” he said, pulling up a photo of an individual-size, picture-perfect soufflé, topped with a fresh raspberry. The white ceramic ramekins were loaned to him by Leclerc.

“Cooking for me is relaxing,” Liu said. “Even though you have to stand there for a long time, you're just focusing on one thing. And you make a lot of friends because everyone wants good food.”

In the future, Liu hopes the school will offer cooking classes for students, such as Baking 101, and he already has ideas about improvising a teaching space in the small kitchen off the common room in Graham House. Cooking is an important life skill, he said, adding, “Fred Gunn would love that idea.”