Toward a Unified Theory of Food: SCGP Café at Stony Brook University

Of all the good reasons to get into the STEM fields of science and mathematics, good food is probably not high on anybody’s list. Until now.

The SCGP Café at the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook University is making the college cafeteria more than just a place to bolt some caffeine and a dry ham and cheese before class. With light pouring in over mod molded chairs and generous tables, patio dining with a view of the kitchen garden and fresh flowers dotting the counters, the space alone says this will not be your average canteen experience. But it is when you get to the counter and look at the food that you know you have entered an alternate academic universe.

Not for the brainiacs of the math and science worlds a shrink-wrapped turkey club, oh no. Big thoughts require far finer fuel. So each day the café team, headed by chef Paolo Fontana and ably assisted by chef Bill Rhame and newcomer Patrick Murphy, puts together a new menu for breakfast and a $21 prix fixe lunch that may include — as it did recently — D’Artagnan rib-eye from a Rocky Point butcher with creamy Anson Mills polenta, local bluefin tuna seared on a bed of white beans, and six fresh salads ranging from chick peas to creamy fresh string beans. How? Why?

The how part of the equation is Fontana and his team. When I arrive Fontana is layering meat and lasagna for the Stony Brook Children’s Hospital Easter meals. “This is part of what makes it great,” says Fontana. “You get to help people and meet people across the university.”

The son of food-loving Italian immigrants, Fontana was cooking long before he learned it could be a profession. His resume includes Union Square Café, Babbo, Gramercy Tavern and Craft. He was in the middle of a career change, studying pre-med at Stony Brook and working the front of the house at Mirabelle when the call came to chef Guy Reuge to open a café at the new Simons Center. Reuge convinced Fontana to return to the kitchen and five years later Chef Paolo is making smart people very happy.

But the why part of the equation is not immediately apparent. Why would a building devoted to geometry and physics need a high end food service?

It turns out to be social science. Physicists are humans too, and like humans everywhere, they respond happily to a good meal.

“What makes this center unusual,” says Simons Center founding director John Morgan, “is that it brings together people from two different disciplines. There might be a wall between physics and math, but the walls are not impermeable. Mixing these groups together is fruitful. There is a lot of cross-fertilization.”

But these thinkers need encouragement to cross over. So the five-year-old building was designed not only to the LEED gold standard of the U.S. Green Building Council, but also to be flooded with light and open spaces where people can’t help but interface.

paolo fontana

“We have lots of visitors, perhaps 1,000 a year, from all over the world” says Morgan. “What we want them to do is interact with each other to learn, teach and exchange. This place is designed for that. From the beginning, a café that served breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea was an important ingredient.”

Yes, he said afternoon tea. It turns out that it is a tradition for math faculties to get together daily for tea at 3:30 p.m. Physicists only meet once a week when left to their own devices, but at the Simons Center afternoon tea happens every day in the common room, catered by the SCGP Café. “I do something different every day,” says Fontana. “We make cookies, serve fruit, whatever we are in the mood for.”

It’s a happy atmosphere where the science minds and the culinary minds also interact, putting together a fancy seed-starting cupboard or decorating ostrich eggs with scientific algorithms. The café also caters high-end dinners for campus dignitaries and guests and Chef Paolo offers cooking demonstrations.

Fortunately for the Stony Brook University community and the rest of us, SCGP Café is open to the public — even those who struggle with our times tables. “Stony Brook doesn’t have a faculty club,” says John Morgan. “The other faculty are beginning to come here for lunch. There is a growing regular clientele and this may in the end function like a faculty club. It serves the whole campus.”

Breakfast Monday thru Friday 8:30 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Lunch Monday thru Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
The café is on the second floor of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics.