Da Bowl: Better dining through planned spontaneity

A swirling concoction of fresh produce topped with creative combinations of spices in a soup base, “Da Bowl” — a featured lunch item at Ezra Stiles–Morse College (ESM) dining hall — takes on a new form every day. This is, in fact, part of its design.

Chef Chris Brothers is the creator and visionary behind the “Da Bowl” — or, more formally, the Asian Soup Bowl — which regularly draws crowds to the ESM dining hall.

The cooks who stirred the pot. When he first came to ESM dining hall from Silliman, Brothers inherited the task of overseeing the Asian cuisine lunchtime option. The Yale standard at the time was pho noodles and stir-fry, but Brothers says he just couldn’t see himself “doing it every single day.” He and a Yale Summer Session instructor with experience in Asian cuisine started “messing around,” looking for an innovative formula for the daily dish. Their conclusion: create a unique daily concoction, a new experience each time.

Brothers begins every morning with a survey of that particular day’s fresh produce and ingredients, and starts mentally combining the different foods and flavors together until he envisions the ideal “Bowl.” Then, he begins bringing the mental calculations into life: cooking, boiling, preparing, and tasting until — “BOOM! And there it is,” exclaims Brothers — the Da Bowl of the day is ready to serve. The entire process, from mental conception to adding the final spices and sauces, takes about an hour and 15 minutes, says Brothers, just enough time for him to “throw everything together.”

Critical acclaim. When introduced, Da Bowl was immediately embraced by consumers (in the true sense of the word). Now the dish has faithful fans from across all of the residential colleges, who line up for it from Monday to Thursday at 11:30 a.m. sharp.

“The kids go crazy,” Brothers says proudly. “At 11:30, there will be 20 kids waiting.”

Seeing to it that the students are happily fed and not simply well fed is one of Brothers’ priorities, he says. “I do it every day because of the [positive] reaction.”

The kitchen as a home, the staff as a family. The relationship between Brothers and the students who are Bowl enthusiasts extends beyond the serving line. “Students come to us for the friendship [formed] over Da Bowl,” he notes. “They come up and call me by name, and I know their names, too.” At times the chef, who refers to the ESM kitchen as his “home,” has invited students to dine with his family.

“I am home, and these [students] are my kids,” he says.

Brothers attributes most of his success with Da Bowl to the support of his teammates — the other cooks and assistants in ESM dining hall. “We really have a stacked deck here. It’s not possible without everyone’s help,” he says, noting the creative process involved in both the development of new dishes and the logistics of running a kitchen. “We always bounce ideas off of each other,” he says.

A bowl by any other name would be just as savory. The dish’s name harkens back to a “Saturday Night Live” skit about Chicago football fans who would cry “Da Bears!” when toasting their hometown team. When Brothers and a bunch of other culinary staff members were sitting around a table discussing a possible name for the new Asian offering, someone yelled: “Da Bowl!”

 “It’s a bad nickname but it sticks,” says Brothers.

A cook of integrity. Known for his warm smile, Brothers says he enjoys serving food to people he cares about, and ensuring that students and faculty alike are well fed and healthy.

“My profession is part of me, and what goes out must be of good quality,” he says, adding that the secret to a good Da Bowl is “hot noodles. You have to have hot noodles.”

Now a junior, Kerri Lu of Pierson College has been writing for YaleNews since her freshman year.