One of the biggest challenges faced by University of Richmond’s Dining Services is also its greatest source of innovation: serving a captive audience of students and staff. This fall, that audience will be treated to a first-class culinary trip around the world when the Passport Café opens in the new Carole Weinstein International Center.

Fasten your seatbelt and prepare to be wowed.

From its international-market theme to its globetrotting menu, the Passport Café is unlike any other dining destination on campus. The attractive, airy café features seating for 10 people and an open servery where patrons can interact with the chef on duty.

Passport’s core menu will include breakfast items such as Nutella and banana panini, fresh pastries, and Greek yogurt parfaits with honey and nuts. Lunch and dinner offerings include sushi, panini, a daily frittata, salads, and a daily hot entrée with a global theme. Gourmet snacks such as cheese plates, locally made gelato and imported chocolate bars will also be available.

“We have the same people coming to our locations every day,” says Maya Vincelli, assistant director of retail services for Dining Services. “We have an interesting challenge to keep things innovative and fresh and new all the time. The international spectrum of the Passport Café will provide students an opportunity to stay enthusiastic about this place for years to come.”

Karen Kourkoulis, who has worked as sous chef at Heilman Dining Center for the past three years, will serve as Passport Café’s chef. Before coming to the University of Richmond, she worked in the kitchen at TJ’s Restaurant in Richmond’s Jefferson Hotel and in restaurants in upstate New York.

She is excited to use her experience in restaurant kitchens to enhance on-campus dining. “Having an international theme to our food opens up a lot of creativity to explore all sorts of cuisines to keep people interested and to keep it fresh,” she says.

Vincelli has spent more than a year developing the concept for Passport Café, conducting extensive research on trends in college dining and in retail food services, and through site visits to other schools’ dining facilities.

She and Kourkoulis began working on Passport’s menu last January, with the aim of developing a solid core menu that will be supplemented with daily specials.

One item they knew would be an important part of Passport’s menu is sushi, which is frequently requested by students and staff.

Last spring, acclaimed sushi chef Jet Tila, of the Pan-Asian restaurant Wazuzu at the Encore resort in Las Vegas, spent a few days on campus instructing Vincelli, Kourkoulis, and a dozen Dining Service chefs in the art of rolling sushi. “The type of collaboration he offered was unusual,” Vincelli says. “It was such an open process, very much in keeping with the college atmosphere. No question was too stupid.”

Sushi making is an art, Kourkoulis says, and Richmond’s dining staff is eager to start rolling. At the outset, Passport’s sushi menu will feature vegetarian, California, and inside-out rolls. “Once we become comfortable with the basics, then we can get creative,” she adds. “We will listen to students and try to accommodate their tastes.” Tila will return this spring to assess Passport’s sushi-rolling prowess.

Vincelli and Kourkoulis also consulted the Office of International Education for its input on the menu, and last spring, offered a small tasting preview for its staff. An Asian noodle salad was especially popular.

“We plan to use their international calendar to tie in to our mission,” Vincelli explains. “If they are doing a ‘study abroad in Spain’ promotion, we want to do Spanish food.”

Sustainability was another important factor in planning the café, from its construction with renewable materials such as cork and bamboo, to the use of post-consumer recycled materials in its disposable products. Eat-in orders will be served on china plates and glassware.

Passport Café will feature products from two local companies: gelato from Richmond’s DeLuca Gelato, and coffee from Blanchard’s Coffee, owned by Richmond alumnus David Blanchard, ’02. Vincelli will create a signature Passport Café coffee blend from Blanchard’s freshly roasted beans.

Not only is Passport Café unusual in its international focus, but in a world where many colleges outsource their dining services to large corporations, it’s rare for a university to take on more responsibility for its own dining operations. It’s especially unusual for a university to tackle something as labor intensive as sushi.

Because the Passport Café has a relatively small kitchen, many of its staples will be prepared in the kitchen of the Heilman Dining Center, then finished at the café. Passport will employ two chefs in addition to Kourkoulis and about 10 students.

“It is great to have this showcase to show people how talented we are,” Vincelli says. “This is something the campus has never had before. We are pretty eager to bring our products to the masses.”