They say that an army travels on its stomach. If the same is true of international diplomacy, the United Nations is in big trouble.
The main UN cafeteria in New York recently sprang back to life as headquarters staff members started returning to the painstakingly renovated landmark Secretariat tower. But it appears the troops are not happy about the menu.
“You wouldn’t think it could get worse, but it has. And it’s more expensive too,” lamented one longtime cafeteria regular.
For those who don’t work at the UN, the important thing to know is that its cafeteria is close and convenient for the thousands who work in the building. It’s inside a high-security 17-acre compound in a neighborhood where getting fed at noon might otherwise require a lot of time and foot power. So think of the headquarters complex as an island, with just one watering hole. Hardworking staffers who need to grab a quick lunch, whether to eat on the spot or take back to their desks, have nowhere else to go.
Hence all the grumbling about the new fare. To paraphrase, it tastes bad and there’s not enough of it — at least toward the end of the day. The new closing time of 4 p.m. rules out the late-afternoon pick-me-up or dinner many employees used to buy when they had to work late.
Put aside the floor-to-ceiling windows and lovely views of the East River. Somehow during the renovation hiatus, the place lost what little soul it possessed. The food prepared on the spot is overcooked and often on the greasy side. Although its captive customers are a sophisticated lot who come from every country in the world, the kitchen no longer seems to even try to turn out first-class meals reflecting the UN’s unrivaled cultural diversity.
The hot dishes, for example, look mostly like high-school cafeteria food. Instead of South Asian curries, Chinese stir-fries, Latin roast chicken, North African couscous, a British roast or Afghan kebabs, one might end up with slices of stringy, fatty pork in a nondescript red sauce or overly battered fried fish and bland rice. (Daily menus are listed on the Web site of the catering firm for the UN, Aramark.) By 2 p.m., many of the steam trays are empty and the choices are down to one or two.
Salad fixings look equally unloved and also decline in number as the afternoon goes on (and at one visit, a bug was spotted crawling among the cucumbers, although it was quickly dealt with by a cafeteria employee). At the sandwich counter, flavorless interchangeable Boar’s Head deli products substitute for house-made meats and fillings, although you can still get a sandwich to order. At the “global” counter, the sushi is pre-made and encased in polystyrene. The oversize freshly made chocolate chip cookies of yore are gone, as desserts are trucked in from who-knows-where, along with the soups — which hail from Hale and Hearty, a local chain.
The coffee bar, at one time run by an actual human who could whip up a cappuccino, now consists of a D.I.Y. institutional espresso machine and a series of coffee urns festooned with ads for the Seattle’s Best Coffee franchise. The fancy fruit juices? All gone, replaced by routine sodas and waters.
The made-to-order and grill stations, where food is still actually prepared, crank out mostly American-style Mexican fast food and pre-formed burgers, although the sweet-potato fries are quite respectable. Why not just farm them out to Taco Bell or Mickey D’s?
Adding insult to injury, there are no trays. And no dishes — just foil containers that burn your fingers. Bizarrely, while you can get a paper cup for your coffee in the food service area, there are no cups — glass, plastic, paper or otherwise — at the water spigots in the dining area. (Don’t forget to bring a glass from home!) No surprise: the forks are plastic.
What’s up with all that, you might ask?
“The use of disposable cutlery and recycled paper plates is a temporary arrangement,” notes a poster of “frequently asked questions” in the dining area. “The use of disposable food trays was discarded in order to reduce the trash volume. Instead brown paper bags are available to carry food to go. Once the DDR [Delegates Dining Room] is reopened in early 2013, staff can expect the availability of the usual silverware and chinaware for use in the cafeteria.” Early 2013, alas, has come and gone.
Whatever; the volume of trash — thanks to all those disposable accessories — is still vast. Maybe that’s because everything that’s left is a throwaway.
So what’s the real reason? Could it be that, with no real dishes, trays, cups, silverware or glasses, Aramark — the caterer for prison systems across the United States as well as the UN — could lay off all the dishwashers?
Back in 2000, when I started eating daily at the UN as a reporter in the Reuters bureau, the cafeteria was catered by Restaurant Associates, a quality outfit that lists the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Time Warner Center and Lincoln Center among its clients. But years ago, the UN dumped Restaurant Associates for Aramark, presumably to bring down costs. Too bad the towerwide renovation didn’t include the kitchen.
The Secretariat Main Cafeteria is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for breakfast and from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch and snacks. It is located in the southeast corner of the ground floor of the Secretariat Building, inside the UN Compound at 42nd Street and First Avenue. You must have a UN badge or be a guest of a UN staffer and go through a security check to go there. The Aramark Web site lists several phone numbers for the cafeteria but they are not answered.