OSCA Prioritizes Accessibility in Iron Chef

Rachel Mead and Daniel Markus

Led by head cooks College junior Sunshine Figlio and College first-year Nikhil Villani, Fairchild co-op emerged as the champion of OSCA’s annual Iron Chef competition on April 1. Inspired by the television game show series of the same name, OSCA Iron Chef is an annual cook-off competition among Oberlin’s dining cooperatives featuring a “secret ingredient” that must be included in their dishes. This year, the ingredient was basil, which provided a refreshing twist compared to the secret ingredients of previous competitions.

“We were tired of co-op staples,” College sophomore and OSCA Education and Training coordinator Kira Zimmerman said. “Last year was squash, which folks are already used to eating on the regular [in OSCA], so we wanted something that could add more of a savory rather than just a starchy flavor. Basil came up as one of the most versatile options that could be a savory accent flavor, but could also serve as the base for a dish or [flavor] a dessert.”

That versatility was apparent in two of Fairchild’s main dishes — Figlio’s basil and orange marmalade sweet rolls and a tofu and vegetable curry infused with ginger, lemongrass and basil created by Villani. The ingredient choice seemed popular among many of the cooks that were competing.

“You can really play around with it. I’m impressed that a lot of people deviated from pesto and traditional things,” said College sophomore Michelle Chu, who helped lead the team from Keep co-op. She and her fellow head cook, College senior Julian Cranberg, had a positive experience despite not placing in the top three co-ops in the competition, with Tank and Pyle co-ops coming in second and third respectively. Harkness and Old Barrows co-ops also came away with full stomachs but no accolades.

A four-judge panel of OSCA’s officers — College senior Bridget Menkis, College junior Tara Wells, double-degree junior Rory O’Donoghue and College sophomore Emmanuel Navarro — scored the food on a 10-point scale for overall taste, presentation, degree of difficulty, creativity and the quality of the food that was provided for those with dietary restrictions.

“It was all delicious, but it was really hard to judge the quality of the food out of 10 because there [were] so many different components on every plate,” Menkis said.

The incorporation of a specific category for dietary restrictions was part of a broader focus on improving accessibility of the event after the experiences that many students had last year.

“Last year, there were huge, snaking lines. It was a seating disaster, and there was a loud band playing,” Zimmerman said. “Seating, spacing and dietary restrictions were the main areas we wanted to address.”

Emphasis on dietary restrictions made basil, to which allergies are uncommon, an even more attractive choice for the secret ingredient, and the event featured several other changes that attendees from last year’s event may have noticed. The event was staffed by several volunteers wearing orange armbands, dubbed “accessibility point people,” that were available to address any accessibility concerns that arose from attendees during the event. Additionally, instead of separate lines for each co-op’s table, this year’s event featured a single line for all the food available. Organizers also implemented a “pre-line” for those with accessibility needs to get food earlier and avoid the crowd.

Although the event was much more accessible than previous iterations, it was not without issues. With no speaker system, directions from OSCA staff and event organizers was often difficult to hear and understand, something which created a great deal of confusion when the pre-line was opened. It was also difficult for teams to gauge how much food to make — many who elected not to use the pre-line found that some dishes were empty by the time they reached the serving tables, while other dishes had large amounts of leftovers, which were later donated to a local food bank.

“I think [the organizers] were really trying to make it way more accessible. They had it all planned out and it wasn’t a mob like it usually is,” Cranberg said. “I remember going to Iron Chefs and missing all the best stuff and getting the ‘gruel’ options … but still our food was gone halfway through. I don’t know if it was better or worse, but it was well-intended.”

Zimmerman conceded that OSCA still has a lot to learn about communication, consistency and accessibility.

“We’re trying to reform a lot of the ways OSCA addresses its institutional memory and improve communication between individual co-ops and all-OSCA, because there’s such a detachment,” she said. “We’re also trying to unravel OSCA apathy. A major theme recently has been membership becoming discouraged and detached from the mission of OSCA as a cooperative social justice association with a major presence on campus.”

Despite the event’s snags, the changes OSCA is trying to make in terms of increased accessibility and engagement were clear and well received, and there was an air of pride and generally high spirits among OSCA members that attended and participated, perhaps best exemplified by Figlio and Villani’s excitement about their victory.

“This is historic for Fairkid. It’s the first time we’ve ever won,” Figlio said. “People think that just because we’re a vegan co-op, the food is bad, and we wanted to show that’s not true.”

“And clearly, we have,” Villani concluded.