Sonoma State University's expensive, expansive new student center, which opened Wednesday, is not all about food.
But the three-story, 130,000-square-foot building has 11 kitchens and 10 dining options, including a full-service restaurant, a sports bar and a live demonstration kitchen that anchors a sophisticated food court.
One food court restaurant, Passport, features menu items from 56 countries and many regions of the United States. Elsewhere in the food court, students can find Mongolian barbecue, Mexican street food and ongoing cooking demonstrations based on the work of famous chefs — on Wednesday, it was Marcella Hazen's Indian curry peppers.
Sonoma State University's New Student Center
This is not your parents' college cafeteria.
"I wanted to create an environment here that will be just as much of an education as what they are getting in the classroom," said Eric Lee, executive chef of SSU's culinary services and a former contestant on "The Next Food Network Star" show.
The student center is also about comfortable chairs. There are lounges in every direction, including one directly inside the entrance that features a long gas fireplace that would fit well in an elegant hotel lobby.
"We want to build community; that's the concept," said Jessica Way, director of the $62 million center, which has an operating budget of about $300,000.
"It really is, top to bottom, the piece that will really stand out," Way said. "You have a better place to go to work and a better place to be a student, and everybody will win."
The center caps a building boom led by SSU President Ruben Armi?na that has transformed the campus in the past 15 years, which has seen the construction of the $140 million Green Music Center, 21 student apartment buildings and a high-tech library, as well as complete renovations of science and administration buildings.
"It brings them together in a central place to eat, mingle, rest and socialize. It is their new kitchen-living room," Armi?na said of the center. He said the campus needs just one more building, to house the nursing department and the schools of business and economics and education.