Every day, the dining services staff of the residential colleges is hard at work feeding a vast proportion of the campus' student population. This week in Street, Senior Writer Andie Ayala ’19 interviews three members of the dining hall staff at Rockefeller-Mathey College Dining Hall, with an interest in their work, their lives and passions.
Chef (Omelet Station)
What do you like about working at the university?
I love young people. That’s why I’m really here. It keeps me young. And I love it. It’s like the first day. Because when you guys come in it’s all new to you. And every year when you all come in, we get to know each other. And I lead the way, because I feel like I’m older, I have people gravitate towards me.
How did you first start working at the university?
I started in 1996. I’ve been in the same building for 20 years. Before I got here I was working at PJ’s, I was making omelets there. That’s why I was hired. I’ve been to a few other places — Butler, Wilson, Forbes; I was filling down there. But this is my home. I love it. We’ve got the best food on campus.
When I came I was persistent. I put sixteen applications in. When I got here, I came to a job fair. The way my applications got here — students would come over to PJ’s, and I would ask them to bring an application from whatever unit they came from. That’s how they used to do it back then. And that’s how I got hired here.
How has the dining hall changed since you’ve been here?
Listen, when I first came, it was about forty of us. And there’s only about four of us left from that generation. The way that you lose your job here — people pass, you know what I mean? They die. When people come here, they don’t leave. The pay is good. You meet a lot of people.
Have you been involved with university activities?
Since I’ve been here I’ve been in two plays, I’ve won four awards. I won one award, the Dick Spies Award [for Excellence]. They gave me $2,000 dollars. They gave me a glass trophy, put my name in it. That was wonderful. They told me I could only talk for two minutes. My niece told me, you love to talk. So I had papers that I taped up, and it rolled out, and it touched the floor. And my boss said, “Howard — you’ve only got two minutes.” And I said, “I know, my niece told me I’ve got to get all this said in two minutes.”
But the best thing that happened to me was when I graduated with the class of 2012. Yup. I was an honorary class member. They gave me a jacket and everything.
What have been your favorite moments with students?
Every year, I go to a basketball game with students and I act as the overseer. I give them their tickets and talk to them. I love that, and we’ve been doing that for five years now. Every year we go see a NBA basketball game, and there be like 20 students with us.
Do you enjoy playing basketball?
I was a high school basketball player and a college player. Somebody put my picture up on the Internet of my high school team — I got it in my wallet now. But we got to talk. I’ll show it to you when we’re done. People didn’t believe me. I had an Afro, and I was like 170 pounds. I’m over that now.
Why did you first start cooking?
My mother. My brothers used to go out and play football, baseball and basketball. But I was a momma’s boy. I would hold on to my mom’s leg. Anytime she would cook something sweet, she would give me the pan and let me rub my finger on it and taste it. So I watched her cook and so I started helping her cook. I love to cook. I cook Thanksgiving, Christmas — and my specialty are my cakes.
What have you heard about the food in the eating clubs compared to Rocky/Mathey?
You know, sometimes I ask people that. They say that sometimes the food in eating clubs is better than what we do. Maybe it’s the cooks or the chefs they have. But when it comes to the omelets — nothing’s happening. They’re here.
I’m quick too. Because I got to be quick. It takes me about 7 minutes to cook for about 5-10 people — on grill. But like today, out in the dining hall, you got these little pans, and you can only put so much in them.
Having been here for so long, how has management changed?
We have people that goes down to New South [Building]. And the New South people will come here and back them up. You know what I’m saying? The bosses and stuff don’t want to get in an argument with New South. They’ll stand for us, support us, or if we got a problem, are with us. Say you were the boss and I had a problem with you, I would go to New South and talk to somebody, and they would talk to that boss. A couple of bosses have been fired, because they was too hard on their employees, and didn’t go about it the right way.
I want to be in a Chinese play. So if you know anyone that’s having a Chinese play, tell that Howard wants to be in it.
What has your work been in the university?
I’ve always worked as a card checker. When I started, I just worked the nights. Over the year as people retired and different people retired and different hours became available I started to work lunch. Saturday night I work on the floor.
Where were you working before you came to Princeton?
I’ve always done counter jobs. I started out when I was your age, working the front desk of hotels. I used to work the front desk at New York airport that was at a Holiday Inn. After working at Holiday Inn I ended up working in Atlantic City.
Do you enjoy interacting with students?
I think it’s pretty obvious that I like working with the students I think you can pick that up from when you pass by me.
What’s your favorite theme night at the residential college?
Certainly you see me on Halloween right? Since being at the university, I started dressing up over the past few years. And I have fun with it. I think the students have fun with it. I know that management comes by and looks at me. It just gives me a chance, you know, like you guys — to pretend and be someone else.
What do you do over summer?
Sometimes I’ve worked for the university. Other summers I’ve travelled. Last summer I went out west to see family and friends. My husband and I, we like to camp. We go camping when we can. That’s where I can talk about food. I always think when we go camping the food tastes better. It always smells good when you go camping. You know people are always up when you smell bacon. Bacon is the coffee of camping, I swear, it’s true.
Have you ever tried working in a different position in the dining hall?
I like where I am. I think I’m a good hostess. I like to pretend I’m a hostess at the door, because you get to know what’s going on. Although you know how Howard does his Saturday night special — what some people call ‘pigs in a blanket?’ A couple of Saturday nights ago, I wound up making banana dogs — I took bananas and wound them up in bread and served them with chocolate syrup and whipped cream. I hope that they ate them, they all told me they thought it was good, so I enjoyed that.
I understood the ‘food love’ that chefs get, because students are really nice, they’ll say, ‘oh, this was really good.’ And it just made me smile, you know? It’s like — yeah, they’re eating something that I made and they’re happy. You’re feeling the love because the kids enjoy what you make for them. And that’s what Howard gets when he makes his hot dogs, because they can’t get enough of them.
You’ve got to come on a Saturday night; you’ve got to show up when he makes his hot dogs. It’s good.
When did you first start working in Princeton?
“I started working in Princeton when I was 19 years old. I worked in Campus Club, Terrace [Club], Colonial [Club], Quad [Quadrangle Club]. I worked in all these eating clubs in the 80s. And then I worked at Howard Johnson’s restaurants. I gained a lot of experience there. After I was in the eating clubs, I started working with a chef who does catering. His name was Larry Frazer. I learned a lot from him, worked for him a total of six years. But after a while he pushed me out. He told me, you’re ready to work on your own. So I applied for a cook’s job in a nursery home. After six months I became the head cook. I was making charts when planning meals, you know, how they have all those dietary restrictions. I stayed there for six years. But it bored me, you know? I needed more adventure. I was working with the elderly who had Alzheimer’s, dementia and diabetes.
What was school like for you?
I’ve been around; I’ve been around for a long time. I had never graduated from high school. I was three credits short. And it was demotivating for me to continue. But I always loved to learn, I taught myself a lot. I met my wife when I was 23, we got married when I was 26. We’ve had three children, all of them went to college. And I supported them cooking. Just cooking. Who would have thought?
One day my daughter, she asked me, ‘Dad, when are you going back to school? You’re the smartest guy I know.’ So one day I went to the Mercer [County] Community College and the woman there told me to take the pretest to see where I was at before I came in. So I took the test and afterward she called me into her office. She sat me down and told me. Do you know what you did? And I said — what do you mean? And she said, you haven’t been in school for 35 years, but you’re testing is already at college level. Because I had educated myself, you know? I just love to learn. So I got my GED, I was elected to the class council, and was valedictorian. I got to speak in front of the whole school, there was something like 3,000 people there, it was pretty nerve-racking. My father got to see me finish high school. I was 49 years old, I did it, my family was proud.
How did you start cooking?
After that, I got a culinary certificate to cook in the State of New Jersey, and then I came here. You know, you don’t just get hired in Princeton, it’s pretty rigid. There’s a standard. I’ve been working here for five years, it’s been pretty rewarding. There’s some people here I knew from way back when. I knew Howard back in high school. It’s true what people say about him. Howard was an amazing athlete, he’s a real nice guy.
You mentioned that your father got to see you graduate; did you look up to him? What was he like?
My father was a pastor of the Morning Star Church of God, back when it was in Princeton. He came from Northern Virginia and got married when he was 20. He passed after his 80th birthday. He always taught me to be a gentleman. To treat people as I would myself. He used to tell me, before I got angry, or upset, or resentful towards someone, to imagine that I was in the other person’s shoes. Have a little more empathy. If most people did that there wouldn’t be so many problems in the world.
What do you like about Princeton?Everything. It’s what I would want my hometown to be like. Trenton used to have all these college campuses — Rider University, Mercer County Community College, Thomas Edison State College [Thomas Edison State University]. But in the late 70s, they all moved to the suburbs. So the city took a hit. Princeton is a nice town, because there are so many different cultures. You walk out on Nassau Street and you don’t know who you’re going to meet. There are people from Ecuador, China, Honduras, and Romania. And you see how I am; I enjoy talking. I just go out there and start making conversation.