"Mensa" means table in Latin. In German, it’s a dining hall, the center of student life at any university. ZEIT Germany talks with a top chef at one of the country’s biggest universities

The Deutsches Studentenwerk, a German association of 58 student-service organizations, runs almost a thousand university dining halls. They’re usually government-subsidized, so they manage to offer unbeatably cheap meals. These dining halls feed more than 400,000 students and faculty members across the country every school day.

Sebastian Welzenbach is just 36, but he’s head chef at one of the country’s largest Studentenwerk dining halls. The regional university system of Würzburg, Aschaffenburg, Bamberg, and Schweinfurt runs nine dining halls in Franconia in northern Bavaria.

Welzenbach has a lot on his plate. He is in charge of everything from recipe development to quality control and personnel. His team serves more than 2,000 meals per day, 222 days a year. Some 450,000 meals are served in the Würzburg university system each year.

This article was excerpted from ZEIT Germany 1/2018.

ZEIT Germany: What does a typical workday look like for you?

Sebastian Welzenbach: I start work at 6:30 in the morning, when many students are still fast asleep. That’s when my team and I meet to discuss the day. Fifteen minutes later, four staff members and my deputy start preparing lunch in the kitchen. The first students show up for lunch at eleven in the morning, when we open. We serve both lunch and dinner, so until the kitchen closes at 8:15 p.m., we make sure that no one leaves campus hungry.

This April, we reached a record of 2,700 servings during the lunch-hour rush. The Studentenwerk Würzburg Facebook and Instagram accounts, which highlight our meals and meal plans, seem to have the right effect.

ZEIT Germany: Have students’ tastes changed within the past few years?

Welzenbach: They’ve become more demanding, that’s for sure. A boring potato stew just doesn’t do it anymore. It’s crucial that meals remain trendy. We even serve Kimchi now.

It’s a challenge. Students want fresh regional, seasonal ingredients, but they can’t afford to pay a lot. On average, our meals cost 3.41 euros. That’s for a main course with two side dishes.

I think we juggle all the demands of a wide student body quite well. It takes a lot of planning, though. We make our meal plans up to three months in advance.

ZEIT Germany: How did you adapt recipes to current trends?

Welzenbach: I started working in the university system in April 2009. Even back then, we offered "Veggie Thursdays" to accommodate vegetarians in our student body.

For the past three or four years, we’ve offered vegan meals too. Sometimes, those are our most popular dishes of the day.

Vegan couscous with falafel sells like hot cakes in our dining halls. And sweet potato-amaranth burgers do, too.

We have a very diverse student body. Students give us a lot of input. So our menus also have become much more international over time. Cumin, masala, and Thai curry pastes have all been introduced to the mix. We try to get as close to the authentic dish as possible. We also have specials. In May, we served dishes from around the world.

One thing is for sure: Currywurst (a popular German fast food consisting of fried sausage and spicy ketchup) will never be taken off the menu.

ZEIT Germany: Which meals sell best?

Welzenbach: Burgers! Schnitzel and Currywurst, too. Seasonal dishes sell very well. Traditional white asparagus in the spring, for instance, and pumpkin dishes in the fall. Pizza is always a hit. We’ve noticed, however, that tastes really vary by faculty. Vegetarian options and salads are popular among the social scientists. We make ten types of salad every day.

Students in technical programs go for lots of meat and poultry. And in our branch close to the university sports center, the Schnitzel cannot be big enough for our customers!