The Refectory
By Debbie Selinsky

The Refectory Cafe
All Photos By Les Todd / Duke University Photography

Whether it’s the cheese strata made with Fickle Creek farm-fresh eggs, the fair trade, shade-grown organic Nicaraguan coffee, or fresh salmon grilling on the terrace, the aromas from Duke Divinity School’s new Refectory Café are impossible to miss.

And the diners, who come from across Duke’s campus, are giving the café rave reviews. Gushed one first-time visitor: “This is the best food in the history of the human race!”

As the divinity school’s $22 million addition neared completion in the spring of 2005, ideas for its first dining facility were bountiful. Dozens of members of the divinity school community weighed in on what the restaurant should look like, what it should serve, and how much food should cost, a special consideration for students, many of whom are supporting families.

In the end, a group of students led by Sarah Musser D’03 and inspired by a class on biblical ecology and agrarianism taught by Professor Ellen Davis, proposed a restaurant embodying what they had learned in class.

Murals add to an inviting atmosphere in the Refectory Cafe

Their mission was to open Duke University’s first “green” café. This meant, in 21st century language: buying locally grown, sustainable products, recycling as much as possible, preparing healthy food with little waste, paying employees a “living wage,” supporting fair trade, and, whenever available and affordable, offering organic foods.

“The students got together and came to us and basically said, ‘We see eating as more than just putting food in our mouths.’ They impressed upon us how eating is a spiritual act, part of our relationship with God and God’s earth,” says Greg Duncan, associate dean for student services and co-chair of the dining committee, with Susan Pendleton Jones, director of special programs.

“Eating is not just a vital human activity—it’s a theological one,” says Musser, who is currently a Ph.D. candidate in religion. She told the committee that “learning through The Refectory would be a wonderful opportunity to practice the ways of peace, justice and reconciliation learned in both classroom and worship—practices we could share with the larger university community.”

Sweet tea

“In a sense, it’s reaffirming the act of saying grace and acknowledging that food is one absolutely indispensable way in which humans take from creation,” adds Davis, who is professor of Bible and practical theology.

“We don’t have a choice about taking from natural resources, which we call creations of God. However, we do have a choice as to how we do it. We can do it in ways, for example, that cut down on petroleum dependence, that support small farmers, entrepreneurs and our regional economy, and that do not destroy God’s creation.”

By late 2005, the café was a work-in-progress, with daily challenges for everyone involved. By December, the crew at The Refectory began to concentrate on marketing the restaurant, and people responded in droves to fliers and to weekly menus provided online and in campus publications.

The Refectory Cafe

In January, The Refectory—named for traditional monastic and college eateries with long wooden tables for sharing and talking—celebrated its grand opening. Now, the café serves more than 400 people per day, with 95 percent of those ordering food actually sitting down and eating there, according to Laura Hall, owner of Bon Vivant Catering, which operates the café and provides catering services for divinity school events.

“Vegetarians and vegans have found us—they are coming from across campus and the medical center. One of the wonderful byproducts of this project is that we’re seeing people from all over the Duke community who, otherwise, might not have a reason to come here,” Hall says. She’s especially proud of the daily Student’s Special, which on this day includes half a wrap sandwich, a cup of soup or chili or a salad, and a dessert of either fresh fruit or something sweet for $5.75. (There are free refills on the homemade organic soups; Musser says her favorite is butternut squash.)

The Refectory, which is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., offers both indoor and outdoor seating. A potted herb garden on the terrace will allow diners to see the growth of ingredients used in the food they’re eating. Grapevine murals adorn the walls inside, and a small rack near the door contains educational pamphlets about farming and other aspects of the food industry.

Most visitors comment on the shiny, oak tables, which were used by students in Duke’s Great Hall many years ago and dug out from storage—along with cups, saucers, plates and silverware, outdoor benches and tables, and some unused kitchen equipment—by Jim Wulforst, director of Duke Dining Services.

The Refectory Cafe dishware

If there’s a single champion of the new café, all parties agree, it’s Wulforst, who convinced the group that they could actually bring the “green” café to fruition. “Laura Hall of Bon Vivant asked for a chance to operate the location,” says Wulforst. “She really embraced the students’ ideas for a green café.”

By the time she and Wulforst had foraged through the hidden treasures in storage, only a few pieces had to be purchased to comply with health department regulations.

“Aren’t these dishes gorgeous?” asks Hall, holding up a magnolia plate from the ‘40s. “They’re so much nicer than paper or plastic.” She boasts that the only paper trash from The Refectory is napkins.

“Green dining”  at the Refectory Cafe

Café employees, including Hall and her sister Geri, are proud of the relationships they’re developing with local farmers to provide vegetables, fruits, eggs, meats and other products. “Now that the word is getting out that we’re buying local, we’re finding more of the right people to provide what we need,” Hall says.

Sam Hummel, environmental sustainability coordinator in the office of the executive vice president and a member of the university’s ad hoc Green Dining Committee, adds that the quality of the food and the knowledge of the staff have made the café a favorite spot for many students, staff and faculty.

Going “green” is a growing trend across the nation, Hummel notes, pointing to the significant amount of locally grown foods used at The Nasher Café in the Museum of Art and the Faculty Commons, both operated by Sage & Swift Catering.

The Refectory Cafe

Wulforst expects more innovation as The Refectory matures.

“I couldn’t be happier for the folks at the divinity school, since it was their dream in the first place to have a food program there,” he says. “It’s the talk of the town—just think of it as a little oasis in the middle of God’s sanctuary.”

Debbie Selinsky is former deputy director of the Duke News Service, where she wrote about Duke Divinity School for 12 years.

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