Gourmet, Free, and Right Under Your Nose
It’s midday, and the Hive is bustling. The second-floor student lounge at Loyola campus is filled with a steady crowd of diners, and every couch, table and counter seat is occupied.
As I eat, I keep a steady eye on the doorway. At least 100 diners line up for food on this autumn weekday, arriving in waves between 12:30 and 1:45 p.m.
The cavernous space is engulfed with a blend of animated chatter, clinking cutlery and atmospheric drum ‘n’ bass. The sharp odour of barbecue and french fries from the first-floor Chartwell’s cafeteria fades into a rich, sweet, onion-and-cumin aroma that brings you into its warm embrace, giving the air a strange complexity.
It’s the scent of today’s Loyola Luncheon dish: a spiced black bean stew with brown rice, and optional tortilla and hot sauce.
Ricardo Hernandez has been coordinating the Loyola Lunch for the past three-and-a-half years. He says he serves anywhere between 200 and 250 of food daily, five days a week. With 35 to 40 per cent of students coming back for seconds, it’s not hard to gauge how may people make time for the Luncheon on an average day.
To these diners, Hernandez is a familiar face: standing behind the serving platters with broad shoulders and a broad smile, ladling out out generous portions of stew and rice.
“Everything is so good,” exhales one woman. “Gracias, gracias!,” chants another.
It seems that many know his name—and almost all encounter him as they would an old friend.
“Ricardo, let me know when you’re up for some foosball,” asks one student, to which—both hands still dishing out servings—Ricardo nods and smiles.
The Loyola Luncheon, which is sponsored by the Concordia Student Union, is a welcome and long-needed component of campus life out at Concordia’s western campus, according to both Hernandez and the diners.
“Eating is something that gives you pleasure. It brings people together. It’s a topic of conversation that people can come together over, especially at a multicultural university like Concordia,” said Hernandez. “I do it so people can actually enjoy this food. I know how tough it is being out here working or studying all day. Heavy or bad-tasting food can bring you down very easily.”
Hernandez, who trained as a chef in his native Venezuela, says that most of his dishes—like today’s black beans—are an attempt to honour the natural properties of one or two featured ingredients. “The spices I add are meant to bring up the flavour, to enhance what’s already there,” he said, adding that the Luncheon dishes he concocts arise “from his head” and that their focus on product and flavour first could be described a version of Mediterranean-style cuisine.
Though greens, beans and tofu feature regularly in the always-vegetarian (and often vegan) Luncheon, both Hernandez and other diners insist that neither hearty portioning nor good taste are ever sacrificed at the Luncheon. Examples of dishes this year include pasta primavera, curried tofu, green lentils, eggplant stew and, of course red and black beans.
“I wasn’t trained so much in vegetarian cooking,” said Hernandez, “but the principles are the same. I focus on putting complementary flavours together, and I cook as if it were for myself. I want to make it taste delicious, and be satisfying and nutritious.”
Emma, a twice-weekly diner at the Luncheon, agrees. “I’m attracted to the accessibility of this place. It’s not just for vegetarians; the food is so good it just attracts people. In a way, it’s a subtle way to draw attention to vegetarian food.”
Hauk, another regular diner, feels the same way. “I eat here five times a week,” said the Concordia student, adding that it’s not necessarily “to save [money]—but because it’s great.”
As I prepare to leave, I spy a steady stream of diners stopping by Hernandez. Some ask for seconds, others comment on the food, others still simply want to thank him. Hernandez, for his part, manages to have something to say to every diner—in a multitude of languages.
“Buenos días,” he says to one couple. “Have a great day!,” he calls after another.
And after sampling the ad hoc community built daily by the Loyola Luncheon, I get the sense that most of these diners do in fact enjoy their day just a little bit more.