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Students Amanda Garbutt (left) and April Engelberg have their own cooking show on McGill University’s closed-circuit TV network, and online.
Students Amanda Garbutt (left) and April Engelberg have their own cooking show on McGill University’s closed-circuit TV network, and online.

Gastronomy 101: Weaning students off the beer-and-potato-chip diet Add to ...

An invitation to dine in the second-floor apartment of Amanda Garbutt, across the street from McGill University and upstairs from a sorority, is among the most coveted in the student ghetto.

From her tiny kitchen, Ms. Garbutt, 21, recently created a weekday lunch for six that included two types of sandwiches - chicken tikka on focaccia and bavette and caramelized onions on baguette - as well as orzo with roasted red peppers, romaine lettuce with blood oranges, and a blood orange and almond tart.

Seated at the table was April Engelberg, also 21, who after tasting Ms. Garbutt's pizza on a homemade whole-wheat crust during their first year at the Montreal campus came up with the idea of a cooking show to bring gastronomy to the student world - demonstrating meals such as butternut squash risotto and open-faced prosciutto sandwiches that can be made in a minimally equipped kitchen.

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The result, The Hot Plate, which airs on the closed-circuit TVMcGill and online at thehotplate.net, has turned the telegenic sociology major into a minor campus celebrity. In December, Saveur Magazine named Ms. Garbutt in its list of top 100 home cooks. More importantly, she has become a sort of guru to a growing number of students who aspire to cook something a little nicer than macaroni and cheese for dinner.

She is often stopped between classes and questioned about the five-minute Hot Plate episodes.

"People say, 'I've got this in my fridge - what do I do?'" says Ms. Garbutt, who has no formal culinary training but says she started experimenting in her parents' Ottawa kitchen at the age of 10.

Ms. Engelberg, an English major and an aspiring producer who has interned at CNN, says the show taps into a growing desire among university students, no matter how strapped for time or cash, to cook for themselves rather than subsist on grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.

And while most students are not quite making their own chicken stock or pie crusts, and are only beginning to grasp foodie mantras such as buying local and seasonal, more and more have already figured out that making their own pasta sauce is cheaper and more satisfying than eating from a can.

"At first you are kind of scared," says Carly Minuk, 21, sitting at Ms. Garbutt's table. Ms. Minuk says she never cooked for herself before coming to university. "So you start with your own vegetables and a can of tomatoes. Then you may add cream. You've got your own sauce."

Many schools are trying to meet the needs of students by offering extracurricular cooking classes. The University of Toronto also runs a weekly farmers' market on campus with vendors on hand to answer questions about local produce, cheese, baked goods and honey. Vegetable gardens throughout the campus are available for student use. The University of British Columbia maintains an on-campus farm where students can learn about agriculture as well as eat the fruits of their labour.

Students' growing political consciousness also has an impact on their desire to cook for themselves. Student-run vegetarian eateries, such as Concordia University's The People's Potato and the University of Toronto's Hot Yam!, offer a place to learn culinary skills as well as increase awareness about buying local, pesticide-free produce.

Sahar Ghafouri Bakhsh, a University of Toronto student, became a vegetarian after doing a project on reducing her carbon footprint. "When you put that restriction in your diet," she says, "you get more into cooking."

According to Ms. Ghafouri Bakhsh, food security - ensuring a safe food supply for all - is a big issue on campus. She recently participated in her school's World Food Week, organized by Hart House, which attracted more than 1,500 students last fall. She plans to pursue a certificate in food security at Ryerson University.

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