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03.05.08

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Photograph by Pete Shea
beyond the cafeteria: Jamie Smith shows off the garden-fresh produce that puts Terra Fresca in a league of its own.

Academic Appetite

At UCSC's Terra Fresca, Chef de Cuisine Jamie Smith gets fresh on a daily basis.

By Christina Waters


The expression "institutional dining" conjures images of cafeteria trays, steam tables and menus firmly anchored in the orange and brown food groups. But not at Terra Fresca dining room, where all produce is organic and everything is made from scratch. "This is not a cafeteria," chef Jamie Smith points out proudly. The Terra Fresca menu agrees. House-made falafel, tabouli, hummus and tzatziki with grilled pita. Organic grilled vegetable sandwiches. BLTs made with peppered natural bacon and organic field greens. Grilled natural chicken sandwiches with organic roasted tomatoes, red onion, provolone and pesto mayo. And would you believe it's all available right in the middle of the UCSC campus?

Cooking at the restaurant in the University Center, Smith has developed a "fantastic relationship with the farm," which means that his Terra Fresca lunches are loaded with organic heirloom items reflecting what's available at the moment. The lofty dining room in the redwoods works exactly like a restaurant, say, at a museum. A waitress takes your order from a full menu, complete with daily specials. You watch your meal being prepared in the exhibition kitchen. And you don't have to be a student to enjoy Smith's handiwork, either; lunch is open to the public five days a week.

After graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Smith cooked at the fabled Union Square Cafe. Coming to California, Smith spent time as chef at Left Bank in Menlo Park and two years at Sestri in Capitola before finessing 1,300 lunches a day at CISCO's gigantic San Jose corporate headquarters. The hellish commute convinced him to look closer to home for a kitchen in which he could combine his expertise with his passion for experimentation. Ten months ago he began planning lunches, banquets and weddings as chef de cuisine at Terra Fresca.

Three private dining rooms are available for lunch meetings, and a large reception room is often filled with after-hours events. "The Chancellor's Room," he tells me, pointing into a high-ceilinged room crowned by an oval table, "seats up to 12. And in the Sentinel Room"--he points into another large room where floor-to-ceiling windows create the illusion of dining in the redwoods--"we can do 30. And we do lots of weddings," he grins.

Smith is aware that parking issues limit off-campus diners, but he's pleased with campus patronage. "We can work within everyone's time frame--even though it's a challenge," he admits. "Everybody wants to come at the same time: 12:30."

The day I visit, Smith is prepping for a small catered lunch he will cook at the Chancellor's House for delegates from a Korean university. "Dwight Collins, our executive chef, does the sourcing and pricing. He creates the menu cycle--he's the backbone," Smith explains. "I do seasonal menus, custom banquets. For this lunch today, for example, they wanted a local California menu. So I thought, Dungeness crab and halibut." Taking a truck from his receiving area, Smith will load up his prepped ingredients and take them over to the Chancellor's kitchen. "I'll cook, serve and clean up. Just like camping--leave no trace."

Terra Fresca serves roughly 120 meals a day, including 200 on Fridays, when there's always a theme buffet prepared by Smith, two line cooks and a sous-chef. A Southern Cajun-themed menu is tacked to the bulletin board of the kitchen as I walk through. Huge pots of black beans are simmering. Pork is braising in the oven, and huge cylindrical steamers are filled with rice. A few vats of soup simmer on the stove. In the dry storage area, linens are stacked high, and shelves groan under cases of Pellegrino, Tabasco, sugar and canned tomatoes. Two Wolf ovens, a pizza oven and a grill--"that's it."

Smith admits he's spoiled by this spacious kitchen and by Santa Cruz's wealth of superb produce. "Now we're even looking at microseasons. You can actually taste the change in the weather."

With the restaurant gearing up for lunch, Smith himself will be whipping up the catered affair of Dungeness crab consommé followed by halibut on orange-glazed fennel with dino kale and Meyer lemon, all "from the garden."

Waving goodbye, the chef rushes off to remove a batch of salted caramel pots de crème from the oven--today's dessert special at Terra Fresca. This is not your mother's dining hall.



TERRA FRESCA

Address: University Center in the College
Nine/Ten Dining Commons, UCSC campus

Phone: 831.459.2689

Hours: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm

Check the menu at http://housing.ucsc.edu/ucen/terra-fresca.html.


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