In the middle of Central Grounds, students dine high up in a glass-encased structure, surrounded by trees. It is not a "crystal palace," as many jokingly call it, but a new temporary dining facility.
While Newcomb Dining Hall undergoes its final three months of renovation, students have flocked to the temporary facility, known as "N2" (the "N" is for Newcomb"), set up in front of Peabody Hall. The name's similarity to N2, the chemical formula for nitrogen gas, inspired executive chef Bryan Kelly to create "Nitro Nights"—evenings once or twice a month when he prepares food with liquid nitrogen.
N2 serves more than 3,000 meals a day. "We weren't expecting such a large volume. We have 500 more people at each lunch than we initially anticipated," says Brent Beringer, director of UVA Dining Services.
Curiosity may have drawn students to the new facility at first. "It's not a tent, it's not a building; it's a modular, reusable structure," Beringer says. N2 even attracted a class of architecture students who came to study its design.
The two-story, 15,000-square-foot structure, prefabricated in Germany, has a sprung floor, which absorbs shocks, walls made of glass and aluminum, and a roof made of fabric. When there is a rainstorm, the water flows across the tent-like roof and runs down the glass windows. "It looks like you're sitting inside a waterfall," says Erik Kunze, the building location manager.
Although the facility is temporary—it will be taken down in December and used elsewhere by the company that supplied it—the facility has all the comforts of a normal building, with restrooms, running water and electricity. Most important, nothing has changed about the menus. Everything is cooked on-site in a kitchen housed in four trailers that were originally built for a modular structure used during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The Newcomb dining staff is a "crew that's been together a long time," says Kunze. The 60 employees worked in tight spaces last year in Newcomb Hall, where renovations cut their cooking area by 50 percent. They had fewer than 48 hours to adapt to the temporary facility before it opened for dinner on the day of Opening Convocation.
"These employees are the most flexible people on Grounds. They've really risen to the task," Beringer says. And in late December, they will return to an entirely new dining hall in Newcomb.
"In our business we don't often get the opportunity to cook in a brand-new kitchen," says executive chef Kent Tilton. "We'll be moving from the crystal palace to the Taj Mahal."