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When it comes to cutting-edge design and a multi-concept space, university dining halls hardly seem an innovative venue. The new West Campus Union Hall at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, could change that perception.
New York–based designer Vincent Celano created a new dining experience that defies the cafeteria quality and drab interior. He says it all started when Rick Johnson, the head of housing and dining at Duke, decided it was time to take student dining “to the next level.” Johnson reached out to Celano and they formed a team—including renowned kitchen designer Jimi Yui—that would not only work on the design but the menus and branding for the concepts, too.
“It started with putting together the team that could brainstorm and create these concepts because they didn’t have the food; they didn’t have the menus. We were very much a part of creating that,” Celano says. “One of the things we talked about as a group was … how do we bring forward the food experience? How do we bring the food theater forward to the customer and make it part of the experience?”
Indeed, the word experience has been key in the whole undertaking. Duke boasts an international student population, and the team wanted the new dining hall to reflect that multiculturalism. Once complete, the West Campus Union Hall will include a dozen different concepts ranging from Southern American and Italian to Indian and Southeast Asian fusion.
Celano thinks it’s a format that will especially appeal to international students. In addition, numerous studies show that Millennials and the subsequent Gen Z are adventurous in their food choices and crave variety.
“We tried really hard to make sure we weren’t designing a food court or concession stand. It was very important to give each one of these venues its own identity,” Celano says. This was achieved through using different materials and branding for each concept. “They all play nicely together, like a market in a sense.”
The physical space also plays to that open sense of space. Duke’s West Campus harkens to centuries past with its brooding brick buildings, gargoyles, and wooded surroundings, but the new structure will be decidedly modern. Shaped like a cube, the building is made of metal and glass with clean lines. Celano says that in an unusual way, this contrasting style complements the existing environment.
And given the university setting, Celano says, the ultimate plan is to include an educational component and invite local chefs to collaborate on special projects. Already the team behind the new dining hall has worked with local farmers to source nearby ingredients and strengthen community ties.
“The idea with the test kitchen is that it’s a pop-up restaurant … and a local chef from downtown could come in and bring forward his concept for a month, and there’s an education component,” Celano says. The layout facilitates these types of encounters as seating around the test kitchen offers clear views of the cooking process.
So far, the new dining hall’s pub, which features a full bar and cold rail to keep drinks icy cold, has already opened, with other concepts and sections set to follow later in the year. On-site pubs are a rarity at American universities but quite common in Europe. Soon they, like elevated food halls and markets, could become more standard.
“These are not new concepts in any way, shape, or form. [Food markets] have been around forever,” Celano says. “Now it’s just more of this collective response to being able to bring these ideas forward.”
By Nicole Duncan