Cafeteria Review: Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

Scientific Dining: Reviews of research institute cafeterias

The Cafeteria at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

Cambridge, Massachusetts

by Stephen Drew

Whitehead Serving Line The cafeteria at the Whitehead Institute was a disappointment to this reviewer. The food is fairly tasty, the room sunny, the decor simple and clean—altogether a betrayal of the cafeteria standards honored by most of the world’s other, older research institutions. However, the place is not without its quirks and charms.

All That Gleams is Not Eggs Benedict

The food is of sufficient appeal that Whitehead researchers sometimes commission the staff to cater their weddings. Various diners recommended the hamburgers, the chocolate chip cookies, the Thai noodles, the chocolate chip cookies, the vegetarian chili, the chocolate chip cookies, the vegetarian calzone, the tofu salad dressing, and the chocolate chip cookies. Vegetarians raved about the roasted potatoes. Chemist Tom Tuschl told us that the food is "up to European standards." Computer artist Liane Fredel drew an equally vague conclusion: "It’s better than European standards."

Mouse geneticist Detlev Binischiewicz found favor with the cafeteria chicken, because, he said, "it tastes like chicken." Another diner, though, complained that the chicken cordon bleu looked like eggs benedict. We ourselves found the dish meritorious; in its complex mix of chicken and egg flavors, clearly the chicken came before the egg. Not all the dishes were worth a trip through the serving line. Fredel muttered darkly about the beef stew, saying, "I won’t even try it, it looks so terrible," and adding that "it doesn’t smell good, either."

The salad bar and other low-fat options are limited. This upsets many of the scientists other than the Germans. However, postdoc Leila Bradley insisted that the the Whitehead salad bar is excellent, especially in comparison to the labs in her native England, where there are no salad bars. One diner railed against the bagels. Space does not permit a full exegesis here, except to mention that the bagels are purchased from an outside vendor.

Trendiness, and Points to Chew On

Overall, the cafeteria is a popular place, where most Whitehead denizens dine often, and where scientific king and commoner meet on comfortable ground. Two Nobel Laureates, both young enough to still savor the taste of their food, dine there regularly. The Whitehead Institute is affiliated with MIT, and the cafeteria is sometimes left-handedly called "the Taj Mahal of MIT cafeterias."

Several researchers took pains to point out the gathering and eating habits of their fellows, and suggested the need for a cafeteria etiquette class. Like the members of any small community, the Whitehead eaters have their favorite peeves with each other. The top items seem to involve: (a) closing one’s mouth when chewing; (b) remembering to chew when one’s mouth is stuffed with food; and (c) not cutting into the serving line.

Whitehead Cafeteria

Mechanical Difficulties

The coffee is almost universally described with the word "nightmare." It is dispensed from vending machines that could, and perhaps should, be put to some alternative use in some distant place in some time far removed from our own.

One other small cafeteria deficiency is of special interest to the biomedical researchers. The containers used for takeout food are unsafe for transport to the lab. They pop open easily, leading to spillage and spoilage and laundry bills.

The Discreet Charm of the Staff

One unusual feature of the cafeteria is its staff, which is actually a small private firm hired by the Whitehead Institute. The head cook trained at Cordon Bleu in London. (Regular readers of this column will recall the contrasting example of another research institute whose chef had trained in a submarine. See AIR 1:3 for details.)

Dave, the singing dishwasher, has an occasionally pleasant, untrained baritone voice that is sometimes heard as far away as the Institute’s auditorium (a distance of about 75 feet). The cafeteria manager, Jim Nally, is a keen appreciator of the science social scene. "Not to dump on scientists, but a lot of them just don’t have it together when it comes to ordering food," Nally opined. Some scientists have the habit of changing their orders after the food has been prepared. This so enraged one former cafeteria staffer that he frequently punched out a kitchen wall and once broke his hand (see Figure 3).

One former researcher, a wealthy, wafer-thin, young woman from France, would eat enormous traysful of food, yet never gained any weight. The cafeteria staff surmised that she went out back after every meal and vomited. They named her "Ralph."

A current researcher is known as "the hamburger man." Every day the hamburger man comes early to order a hamburger, then says, "I’ll be back," and forgets to return until after the burger has basked for several hours under the heat lamp. The hamburger man then returns and scarfs down the wizened morsel.

Imminent Beard?

At the time we visited the Whitehead Institute Cafeteria, its walls displayed not a single picture of a bearded man. Administrators assured us that a portrait of Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, the Institute’s first director and the possessor of a high quality beard, would soon grace the dining area. For that reason we give the cafeteria a bearded men rating value of i.


Quality: .7-3i
Trendiness: .8+ .05i
Bearded Men: i

Copyright © 1996 The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). All rights reserved.