A Columbia start-up offers the delight and drama of themed dining experiences.
By Isaiah Bennett
It is obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the social habits of Columbia students. The advent of social distancing guidelines and shelter-in-place orders has put a premium on the experiences of physical proximity and engagement, which were before so frequently taken for granted.
The admittedly self-indulgent argument that college students somehow suffer more from this social loss has been made in a variety of forums, but amidst the current social void there lies the opportunity for reflection upon the campus experience. At a moment when students are so acutely aware of the value of human contact, those elements of campus life that in normal times facilitate fellowship seem, through an added lens of nostalgia, particularly special. It is in this light that Schefs, an odd but intriguing new venture on campus, should be regarded as truly remarkable.
In an era in which campus social ventures clamor to develop new technology and platforms, Schefs’ aspirations are decidedly low-tech. The goal is to place students around the dinner table—a locale that Schefs founder Lola Lafia, CC ’22, sees as exemplifying the spirit of togetherness.
The set-up is relatively simple: Students approach the organization with a concept for a culinary event that they are interested in hosting—say, tapas or pasta-making—and the event is posted on the Schefs website, where any student can purchase tickets for between $5 and $20. At some events, the host alone cooks, and at others the attendees participate; either way, the central focus is food and the experience of sharing it, of enjoying something new with other members of one’s community.
In conversation, Lafia explains that she has always been interested in food, as both a simple pleasure and a shared ritual. While she’s quick to note that she’s not much of a cook herself, she takes clear delight in describing the experiences from which she draws inspiration. She speaks warmly about sharing meals with her family, and of her younger brother’s cooking; with a smile, she recounts long meals with friends.
Illustration by Lilly Cao
During her first year in Morningside Heights, Lafia missed the kind of intimate experience shared around the dinner table. And she noticed that as the year sped along, previously eager and friendly students began to slip into a social routine, closing their comfortable circles and retreating from exploration of their larger community.
Unsatisfied with the offerings of Greek life and other social organizations, she began to consider a different approach. In September of 2019, Lafia posted a survey on the Class of 2022 Facebook page to gauge her peers’ relationships with food and their willingness to branch out. The response was overwhelming. Within days, Lafia received 123 replies from students aching to cook and rabid to try something new. “At that point, I thought, ‘maybe food can be a solution to both of these problems,’” she laughed.
Drawing from this pool of respondents and some similarly minded friends to serve as hosts, Lafia developed a website with a classmate and prepared a schedule of 13 dinners to run throughout Schefs’ February 2020 launch. With sold-out offerings from DIY Dumplings and an “Intimate Winter Feast” to “Psychodrama Dinner Theater” and a movie prop-themed dining experience, Lafia takes understandable pride in the success and variety of events boasted in Schefs’ first month.
As I prepared this article, Lafia invited me to the “Psychodrama Dinner Theater” event. The Schefs website provides potential attendees with little more than a modest price, the name of the host, and a brief description of the event, so when I received an email with the invitation, an address, and a time, I had almost no idea what to expect. Teasing a narrative involving a mysterious scientist and his trauma-scarred patient’s efforts to integrate “the fractured strands of his once-whole personality,” the description certainly raised a skeptical eyebrow, but I attended nevertheless.
As I entered the dining space, I was greeted with an empty table, where seven other equally confused diners eventually took their seats, with no sign of the host. There is a certain anxiety in sitting down with a handful of unknown people, but with the promise of food, chatter quickly developed. A few of the diners had come together, doubtless having heard of the event from the host, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that others had stumbled upon the event through Lafia’s tireless marketing.
As hesitant pleasantries slowly turned into comfortable conversation, it came as a surprise when an Igor-esque attendant finally burst into the room wearing a bloodied head wrap—the patient, of course. He shakily poured water and sputtered a few foreboding words, earning full marks for commitment, before fleeing the scene.
For the better part of two hours, he sped in and out of the room carrying dishes and engaging his captive audience. Joined by a thickly accented disciplinarian of a doctor, our host spun out a somewhat bare-bones but chuckle-inducing ‘psychodrama’ between courses.
The food was delicious: four courses of small but expertly cooked bites included handmade ravioli and some of the best lamb I’ve tasted. And with the determined flow of the hastily prepared story, conversation never stalled. Excepting the obvious absurdity of the drama around us, the experience at the table was warm and natural; it was fun! Try as one might to maintain the cool composure of a disinterested New Yorker, the experience of a shared meal is a hypnotic one, coaxing you into a relaxed enjoyment of those around you.
Walking away from the event, I found myself slightly bewildered by my experience. Though I hardly see myself as the stereotypical disengaged senior, I’ll acknowledge that meeting new students has been far from a priority during my last semester. Nor have I ever been one to complain about the convenience of a dining hall diet. As such, on the surface, an organization like Schefs might be something I would typically skip. Yet, as I wandered down Riverside Drive, I felt very lucky to have found my way into that dining room.
Perhaps the social distancing doldrums and the looming portent of an online graduation are pushing me into nostalgic territory, but I’m more inclined to think that Lafia and the Schefs team are onto something in their dogmatic commitment to the dinner table. Of course, the exodus from campus and the effective closure of the New York social world has brought a premature end to Schefs programming for the academic year, but Lafia remains confident that their programming will resume come September.
For those returning to campus in the fall, there is a great deal to be excited about: a return to intimate friendships, to a sense of community, to a thriving academic environment, to the beautiful city. If you can manage it, however, consider Schefs. After months in isolation, a simple, shared meal might be just the remedy you need.