Students visit AU dining for celebrity chef

The Food Network celebrity chef brought Thai food to TDR and Paper Lantern

Caleb Oglivie, Staff Writer

When Senior Mara Shepard finished dinner, she wasn’t sure where to put her plate. Shepard said she was in the Terrace Dining Room, TDR, for the first time to meet Food Network Chef Jet Tila and faced crowds of students looking to do the same.

“I’m a huge fan of his, so I just really wanted to meet him,” Shepard said. 

Shepherd said she talked with Chef Tila about his Food Network shows. Tila is known for his roles in shows like Food Network’s Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen along with restaurant concepts like Dragon Title Noodle Company and Kuma Snow Cream.

“It was really cool,” Shepard said. “I feel like I was not cool. I lost it a little bit. But he’s really nice.”

Tila toured TDR, greeted students, answered questions and talked about food and experiences on March 30 as part of an arranged visit to American University. Tila cooked drunken noodles in front of a crowd. The chef also greeted fans, signed autographs and took photos in the afternoon in Mary Graydon Center. People were able to order Tila’s dishes from Paper Lantern throughout the day and at TDR for dinner.

Paper Lantern served dishes like Thai basil tofu, teriyaki chicken and Mongolian beef. TDR served dishes like Japanese hot dogs, beef curry and dumplings.

TDR and Paper Lantern increased meal swipe sales by 40% during Tila’s visit and sales from other payments like debit cards and EagleBucks increased by 60%, according to an email sent on April 12 to students.

AU Dining and Chartwells will donate 2,217 of the meal swipes used March 30 to Eagles Helping Eagles Program, according to the email. The program allows students who don’t have meal swipes to use meal swipes donated by students, according to AU’s website.

In addition, AU Dining and Chartwells will donate $1,270 from money sales during Tila’s visit to the Market Pantry, according to the email. The pantry provides free food to students in need, according to AU’s website.

Tila made the dishes that brought increased numbers of students to TDR and Paper Lantern to be familiar, Tila said.

“These are dishes that I think students and faculty and administration know, they eat in their daily lives,” Tila said. “We’ve got everything from drunken noodles, to romaine to basil chicken.”

The dishes were already available to AU Dining, Tila said, because of his preexisting relationship with Chartwells, AU’s dining services provider. The chef said he started working with Chartwells as a university chef before appearing on Food Network shows.

“And I’ve done training programs for them,” Tila said. “So we have, really, a great kitchen team that knows my stuff.”

Tila’s Chartwells partnership led to his visit to AU. Tila said Chartwells asked him to come to AU because the university is important to the company.

“And I can see why,” Tila said. “There’s a really positive culture here, from what I’ve seen. It’s a one-day visit, obviously. It’s a diverse group. It’s a very polite, friendly group. And it’s one of the best cities on earth.”

The partnership led to the drunken noodle cooking demonstration and the meet and greet to happen in the afternoon, Tila said. 

“My job is to just show you a good time,” Tila said before the cooking demonstration. “And that might be in what you want to eat, that might be in signing an autograph, taking a selfie, that might just be they don’t know who I am at all, but they liked the food experience. Maybe they’re excited that there’s something different on the menu today.”

Leah Noad, a senior studying public relations, ate at Paper Lantern to try the new menu and meet with Tila, whom she first met in high school.

“He came to our school and then he had a takeover at our school and then he did a little food station and then we all got to try the food really similar to what he did over here,” Noad said.

After eating Tila’s food at AU, Noad said the food was great. 

“A lot of students are kind of used to the same thing at TDR and our other options,” Noad said. “So it’s kind of nice to have someone new come in. Especially someone like a celebrity chef come in and get to do something like a little surprise like this.”

Keaton Kessler, a sophomore studying international service, said Tila’s reputation and the prospect of drunken noodles convinced him to visit Paper Lantern.

“I hadn’t heard of the chef before, but I looked it up and it seems like he knows what he’s doing and so I wanted to try some of the stuff they had here,” Kessler said. “And I love drunken noodles, so I wanted to see how they were here.”

Fatiha Washington, a freshman studying public relations and strategic communications, went to Paper Lantern as a break from the dining hall’s food.

“We’re used to the usual recipes and like all the same flavors, all the same ingredients, all the same dishes, like every week,” Washington said. “It’s just really repetitive. So, trying something new, like a new chef, is really appealing.”

People went to TDR later in the day to try more of the new food.

Chadrellene Boshoff, a graduate student studying business athletics, said she appreciated that TDR had higher quality food for the night than normal.

“I mean, I’m grateful for TDR,” Boshoff said. “I love TDR. I come all the time, but sometimes it gets a bit boring.” 

Delia Abatin, a sophomore studying public relations and strategic communications, said the Chef Tila takeover was reminiscent of other TDR events which attracted more people to the dining hall.

“And I also think it’s also good for students to experience something different,” Delia said

Ziwen Zhang, a junior studying international studies, said he doesn’t normally go to TDR but wanted to try Tila’s food.

“I actually don’t eat that much TDR food,” Zhang said. “I just saw the email and then I was like ‘Yeah, I got to.’” 

The event not only attracted students to TDR, it also brought a group of five students from Arlington, Virginia, to AU. 

Students from Arlington Career Center’s Culinary Arts and Sciences Program watched Tila’s cooking demonstration and got autographs from Tila earlier in the day. 

Renee Randolph, the Culinary Arts instructor of Arlington Career Center’s Culinary Arts and Sciences Program, said they discovered the event because they happened to be staying at Hyatt Regency Crystal City hotel. She said the hotel’s executive sous chef, Stephanie Totty, recommended they travel to AU to meet Tila.

Andre Mejoa-Romero, a student of the career center, said seeing a demo from a celebrity chef was amazing. 

“I mean, it was like a once in a lifetime opportunity, almost, so it was really nice to jump upon that opportunity,” Mejoa-Romero said.

The Arlington Career Center is part of Arlington Public Schools and offers specialized classes in fields like health, public service, digital media and engineering. 

One of the career center’s students, Catherine Borilla, said she was impressed by Tila’s ability to talk to a crowd and answer questions while he prepared drunken noodles. 

“I feel like when you’re cooking, you’re so focused on your knife cuts and what you’re doing,” Borilla said. “But the fact that he actually had to balance between communicating with us, what he was doing while answering questions, is a skill not many people could do and I feel like it was really an amazing experience he was able to do that.”

Bronte Burleigh-Jones, Chief Financial Officer, Vice President and Treasurer of American University, said the University administration brought Tila in because of his skill and presence in the media. 

Burleigh-Jones said she hoped the visit would add “a little spice” to students’ dining experience. 

Events like visiting chefs may continue in the future based on student feedback, Burleigh-Jones said. She encouraged students to share their hopes for AU Dining’s programs.

“We want to raise your expectations and we want to meet them,” Burleigh-Jones said.