The Underground Stanford Dining Society

BEN GAIARIN KNOWS a mean risotto. While many of us are more likely to set the oven on fire or perhaps cut your finger peeling potatoes, Ben spent all of his time pre-Stanford travelling from kitchen to kitchen around the world. Having worked the food scene everywhere from Tuscany to D.C., how did this international chef find himself as a freshman on Stanford’s campus? 

Spotting Ben on campus isn’t too hard, though he might be whizzing by on his skateboard when you do. Thick-rimmed glasses, button downs, and khaki shorts are his uniform, and a charming smile completes the look. Classic East Coast style -- but he embraces the Californian pleasures of hiking and taking weekend trips to Yosemite. While he's still toggling back and forth between majors, it seems he’s already made a place for himself here. 

The summer before his freshman year, in true Stanford fashion, Ben worked at a private chef start-up in Paris. Itching to get into cooking at Stanford, he created “FoodTalks”, or, as Ben calls it, “the Underground Stanford Dining Society.” Twice throughout the quarter, eight lucky students are invited to a secret location on campus to learn how to prepare an authentic Italian meal. No catch, no cost, just come with an open heart and an empty stomach. What makes Ben’s idea unique is its clandestine nature – no one quite knows who’ll show up to the next rendez-vous or where it’ll be held. To get a golden ticket to a dinner, you need to be invited by someone who previously attended. 

So just who shows up to these FoodTalks dinners? Egyptologist post-docs, undergrad semi-professional dancers, Brazilian law students, just to name a few. They start off as strangers, but dinner conversation doesn’t stall and the room remains full of laughter and the aroma of tomato sauce. Here’s what a few of Ben's guests have to say about the experience: 

“With the promise of a clean kitchen, fresh ingredients, and a bunch of total strangers, one can’t help but jolt into the immediacy of the present moment. How ironic that I feel so at home amidst total strangers.” 

“Entering the room felt like embarking on a new adventure. It was also therapeutic in a way, I felt like I could leave all the things I had to do at Stanford behind.” 

Ben allows each guest to take part in preparing the meal, whether that means thinly slicing the parmigiano or taste-testing the pasta sauce. Even for those novices whose closest experience with cooking is DoorDash, Ben’s encouraging smile and hearty laugh make it seem like you, too, can be an authentic Italian chef. “I always try to connect,” Ben says. “Can I do something I like through food, you know? When I created FoodTalks, it was ‘How can I meet as many people as I can while I’m here?’” 

What’s in store for the culinary prodigy now? This summer he’s planning on working in Triestre, Italy, with the Innovations team at Illy, the espresso company. Though we won’t be seeing him on Food Network anytime soon, he says his relationship to cooking won’t be changing much. “I see myself making comfort food in my home or other people’s homes; bringing different people together with the excuse of a good meal,” Ben says. Since being at Stanford, Ben has never cooked for himself; all of his time in the kitchens on campus have been spent toward pleasing the palates of other students and bringing Stanford community closer together.

By: Lauren Motown Philips