Chefs at a busy Orange dining hall whip up a gourmet lunch feast that would make any foodie’s mouth water: blackened pollock drizzled with tomato coulis served over a bed jambalaya, a fajita salad topped with tender chunks of "hangar" beef strips and deli sandwiches made with artisan bread.

The locally caught fish and regional dishes cater to the palate of the buffet eatery’s most demanding customer: college students. Indeed. The galloping gourmet has hit the halls of academia.

National and local universities are spicing up cafeteria menus as more students prefer fancier fare to traditional mess-hall meals. Chapman University started rolling out fresh-Mex specials, grilled sandwiches, vegan rice bowls and pan-seared salmon this fall. Coming soon at Cal State Fullerton, woks will move near serving lines to showcase fresh stir-fry meals, while UC Irvine plans to add a sushi chef and specialty concessions in 2007.

"I think freshness is a big deal with students who want to feel like they are getting a meal that’s not from a chafing dish," said Kurt Borsting, director of Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Student Union.

Though the days of college-grub staples – meatloaf, Salisbury steak and spaghetti – are not completely over, food-service providers are finding financial value in injecting flair into ho-hum menus. College cafeterias are projected to generate $11.1 billion in sales in 2006, up from $10.1 billion last year. At the same time, research shows colleges can gain a competitive edge by serving restaurant-quality food.

"We are looking to be a cut above the rest of other universities," Joseph Kertes, Chapman’s dean of students, said. Experts say it’s a smart move. Campus food service ranks third behind academics and location as the most important factor students consider when choosing a college, according to Porter Consulting Worldwide, an independent food-service consulting firm.

"We are finding that when a student ranks the first two equal, then food service will make or break a decision," said Robin Porter, president of the Washington D.C.-based firm. This is triggering food providers such as Sodexho Inc., whose 900 college clients include Chapman, to break new ground at college dining halls across the country.

Last month, the Maryland food contractor opened at George Mason University an upscale, full-service restaurant that’s expected to serve cocktails. Earlier this year, Sodexho also organized its first summit of students to gauge campus cravings.

Among its findings: Students want weekly meal varieties, organic options, menus reflecting the diversity of their campus and made-to-order dishes. In other words, the "sloppy Joe Monday" mentality is out, said Erin Gaynor, a Chapman senior who served on Sodexho’s spring panel.

As a result of the student input, Sodexho this fall scrapped its traditional "national menu" plan in favor of launching custom menus at campuses. At Chapman, it meant cooks now crank out more reduction sauces, baked-from-scratch muffins and homemade salad dressings for its 4,500 students and staff members, said executive chef Jim Douglas, a former chef at Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Newport Beach, Calif. The buffet-style dining hall charges $8 at lunch.

Other local universities are making similar dining hall changes. UCI’s food court will boast a half dozen specialty eateries offering panini sandwiches, homemade pastries and gourmet pizza as part of a $54 million student union remodeling, expected to be completed in 2007. The upgraded dining venue will also add a sushi chief. Cal State Fullerton recently opened a Juice it Up! to cater to the smoothie crowd and will break ground next year on an up to $1.2 million dining hall redesign, Borsting said. The decor change will include a mix of small and large tables to cater to different-size groups and emphasize preparation of stir-fry meals in full view of students.

"Display cooking and being able to pick your own ingredients is paramount," said Porter, whose company is working with Cal State Fullerton and USC on dining upgrades. But customizing meals can be challenging because it takes extra time, which won’t cut it with today’s impatient students, Porter added. "They want it right now and right away," she said.

Chapman freshman Chelsea Pickens, 18, had that problem this week. While she likes the cafeteria’s new deli station, she said the line is too long.

Film major Johnny Maravelis agreed, opting instead to grab steak Diane at the saute station. The transfer student said the daily hot meal specials are impressive, especially the pan-seared salmon and pollock dishes. "I went to two colleges before here, and they would never serve fish that tastes fresh," said Maravelis, 20. "Instead, they’d have fish sticks."

Chapman students are challenging chefs in other ways. Recently, diners balked when chef Douglas made "white" macaroni and cheese sprinkled with bread crumbs, a standard East Coast recipe. "It didn’t get the kind of response as the yellow cheddar cheese," said Douglas, adding that West Coast macaroni calls for noodles slathered in yellow and cheddar cheeses, and no crumbs.

Student L. Mark Higgins II, 19, also questioned the cafeteria’s creative reuse of leftovers. "One time they mixed pesto with Mexican food, and that was not appealing to my palate," said Higgins, a sophomore who regularly lugs his own lunch to campus from home.

Despite the effort to add a variety of upscale meals, it’s hard to please every student, said Kertes, Chapman’s dean of students. That message was clear in a few comment cards submitted this fall to Chapman’s food provider. While students raved about the "rosemary chicken" and "smashing vegan pot pie," others asked for more frequent appearances of comfort foods. "More macaroni and cheese, please," stated one student. Just don’t forget to use the yellow cheese.

© 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.