Thursday, July 7, 2016

Vapiano: The Rare Culinary Experience

The Italian restaurant, Vapiano was a culinary adventure that should be experienced at least once, despite the lengthy wait time, loud music, and unbearable heat. Vapiano mainly attempts to appeal to the students who work in the adjacent OBA library through its popular music and fresh, affordable food. After a brief walk from Oosterdok, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to visit during dinner.
 The main part of Vapiano spans one floor, found on the second floor of a two-story building.  Upon initial entrance to the building itself, the first floor was sparse in its design; a cashier welcomed us behind a kiosk that held menus, informed us that the restaurant was upstairs, and gave each of us cardboard cards that strongly resembled throwaway coasters one would receive at a bar. Despite their nondescript appearance, these cards were used in order to track anything we bought while on the second floor, which would then be paid for on the first floor upon exit. Although the dining experience initially seemed incongruous due to the separate floors and their functions, the card actually gave one the freedom to eat as much food as he or she would like without worrying about any sort of social pressures that can accompany eating out. Since there is no wait-staff taking your order (whose job, while also serving, is to push the meal along as quickly as possible) there is no pressure to merely get a main meal and perhaps a dessert before vacating the table for the next customer. The customers at Vapiano left when they were satisfied—whether that was after a bowl of tomato soup with some bread or two pasta entrees and a salad. The card also facilitated the payment process.
Upon reaching the second floor, there were two negative factors that were immediately obvious: the loud music, and the hot, cramped room. Vapiano as a restaurant was not necessarily large to begin with, and much of the space was taken up by the large kitchen off to the left side of the entrance. Vapiano was also almost at full capacity when we arrived. Along the center of the dining space were smaller tables, whose surfaces were covered with potted basil and rosemary. A powerful light source hung over each of them, keeping the plants fresh and giving customers the opportunity to season their meals from their seats. However, the plants’ light source gave off a fair amount of heat and that—in conjunction with the heat from the chefs’ stoves and the humidity that can occur when large amounts of people share a small space—created an incredibly hot room.
The noise level was also an issue. As a result of so many people occupying the same space, the restaurant was understandably loud. However, Vapiano also played pop music over the speakers at such a high volume that customers were forced to shout in order to speak with one another. As stated before, Vapiano is connected to the OBA library, a center where high school and college students gather to hang out, study, or work. The only explanation I can think of as to why the music was present at all is that the restaurant was attempting to appeal to their young market by creating a ‘trendy’ vibe. However, the result is that the restaurant becomes unnecessarily noisy.
 The seating situation and ordering at Vapiano was slightly bizarre as well. Once one finds a table (if one finds a table; popular times may necessitate taking the meal to-go), he or she must join a large queue in front of the kitchens to order. Vapiano chefs make the meal right in front of the customer, ensuring customer satisfaction and creating a more intimate relationship between chef and customer than is traditionally found in restaurants. The fastidiousness and care the chefs put into each meal was appreciated, but these traits became annoying when one had to wait 45 minutes to order food. The restaurant attempted to facilitate the process of ordering by having separate lines for customers who wanted pasta, pizza, or appetizers; however, there were a few issues with this system. If a first-timer unknowingly came at a popular time, it wouldn’t matter what they chose to eat, as none of the lines would be short. The other issue was that, when every customer had the ability to seat themselves, it made it impossible for every member of the group to eat together. Since people are often in line for at least 30 minutes, one person must inevitably stay behind and keep the table secure so that another hungry group does not take it. The magnetic cards, although a great way to account for a personal tab, also make it difficult to add another person’s order to it. In the end, due to the need for everyone to order for themselves, we ate at staggered times, which was disorienting because going out to eat is about eating together.
Once you reach the front of the line, watching the chef make the dish is a culinary experience. The chefs’ training was evident; their movements were practiced, and it seemed as though they could prepare a meal with their eyes closed. There was no hesitation in their work. However, I was distressed when I heard that Vapiano’s adopted phrase was “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano” in Italian or “If you have an easy-going and relaxed approach to life, you’ll live more healthily and longer” in English. As I looked at the hot and humid conditions that the chefs worked under, the quickness with which they had to mete out the food and the pressure that they were under to make said food delicious, I found the phrase ironic. These workers were not leading an ‘easy-going approach to life’—in fact, it seemed as though they were doing the exact opposite. One chef wore glasses, and the heat from the stove caused them to fog up to the point where he couldn’t have been able to see. He either didn’t have the time to clean his glasses, or instead, deemed it a futile action as they would inevitably become fogged once more; either way, he never stopped to regain his sight. All of the chefs were sweating, but none stopped to take a break. It struck me as odd that one of the pulls of the restaurant—watching my meal be prepared before me—was actually a negative experience because the chefs were clearly overworked.
However, once one returned to their seats, the chefs and lines a bit further away, he or she began to focus on the meal itself which was surprisingly delectable. The spices worked in harmony with each other and the meat was cooked just the right amount; not pink, but not cooked to the point of chewiness either.  The particular meal I chose was meant to be served over pasta, but it also worked well with the risotto I used as a substitute. In a moment of pure gluttony that only comes with particularly amazing meals, I found myself continuing to eat long after I was full, as I wasn’t ready for the mixture of tastes to leave my mouth. I understood why so many students were willing to eat here even if it wasn’t the best experience. In my time as a college student, I have found that if the food is amazing (or simply present) any negative experiences are significantly dulled.
The fresh, accessible herbs, meals to order, and magnetic cards made Vapiano a dining occurrence I will not forget. Its popularity stands as testament to the fact that despite some subpar aspects of dining (the heat, the noise, etc.), Vapiano offers great fresh food and maintains a vibe that will keep students coming back.

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