Cooking at the University Club: An Aspiring Chef Embarks on a Culinary Adventure
Last year, a wild hair prompted me to buy a food truck, and after following through on this dubious impulse, I decided, that if I owned a food truck, I must learn to cook.
Sure, I cooked at home and thought I was pretty good. And I had worked in a restaurant or two in my youth.
Also, I'd lived on the Gulf Coast for almost 25 years, went to school in New Orleans and, since everybody cooks in New Orleans, I learned to cook jambalaya, red beans and rice, trout meuniere, gumbo and fried catfish. I figured State College could use a whole lot more of that.
I even quit my job as a newspaper reporter In Biloxi, Miss., to work in the galley of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and on a ship, a retrofitted Dutch cruise line vessel, that scoured the Gulf looking for tapped-out rigs.
I've named that period of my life, "The Cleansing of the Palate." Stressed out at my job, I wanted a change. Yet another impulse obeyed.
Here's the deal on those obsolete rigs. A team of divers would set explosives on the rig's legs and it would gush up, gurgling and bubbling madly, and float horizontally on the surface. An enormous crane — it was nearly the length of the entire ship — then lifted the rig to a waiting barge where a group of burners cut it up for scrap.
One more thing — and this is obliquely related to food. The explosions caused a spectacular fish kill, and the burners would crowd onto the tugs used to tow out the barge armed with nets, hooks and any kind of implement that could scoop up or spear this bounty from the sea, especially the prized redfish and speckled trout. It was a rodeo on water as the tugs chugged around in circles or in odd tangents, barely missing each other.
Back to the food truck. It was old. It was beat up. Driving it was like driving a whale. But it was all I could afford and I had grand dreams of it in a lovingly renovated state.
It broke down once on College Avenue, right on the overpass at rush hour, causing a traffic gridlock that looked to extend all the way to University Drive. Blown head gasket. I know the sound. It was a very hot day in August. Drivers honked. I got to know that sound, too. The policeman was nice, though, and a tow truck from Walk's came quickly and hauled it to my garage in Lemont.
I was undeterred and, despite my lack of cooking experience, combed Craigslist for possible jobs. In the spring, an "assistant cook wanted" ad popped for the University Club, of which I'd never heard. The job sounded like a perfect fit for what I wanted to learn: volume cooking, no fast food, and no pressure like that found in a busy restaurant kitchen.
You could download an application from their website, which I did and drove over to the club shortly after filling it out. The U Club is next to the power plant on campus and in front of the Applied Research Lab.
It was an inauspicious beginning. I had rented a U-Haul pickup truck that morning to do some moving, parked it in the lot and was heading to the side door of the kitchen ready to hand in my application. A young woman stood behind the screen door.
"Are you the kitchen manager?" I said, smiling. She looked at me like I was a headcase.
"Um, yeah," she said. "But it looks like your truck is running away from you."
I turned to see this brand-new truck, on its volition, head to the rear of the ARL. I sprinted, as best a man of 59 is able to sprint, grabbed the truck's door handle, flung open the door, leaped inside and slammed on the brakes just before it walloped into the lab's brick wall. After my heart palpitations settled, I parked the truck and walked back sheepishly to the kitchen.
"Forgot to put it in park," I said, even more sheepishly.
"Um, yeah," she said.
Nonetheless, the kitchen manager, Katrina, emailed me a few days later to ask me if I'd like to interview.
Katrina held the interview in the club's "living room," an antiquey-looking place whose walls were painted a vibrant shade somewhere between orange and pink that was nevertheless soothing. I sat on the couch reading a book waiting for Katrina when a Japanese man walked in and made himself at home behind me in a chair in a far corner. After awhile, Katrina arrived and the interview went on as interviews will until the man spoke loudly and with heavily accented English, "What can you cook?"
Unsettled and at a loss for words -- I'd never had a spectator during any of my countless job interviews -- I finally sputtered, "Egg Foo Yung," But I didn't know why. It wasn't Japanese cuisine. It's not even for-real Chinese food. Plus I hadn't made it in years.
I explained that it was similar to an omelete except it was served with a kind of soy sauce-based gravy.
"You'll make me that."
"Sure." I looked at Katrina. It was a questioning look.
"That's Jacki," she said. "He's one of the residents here." She looked over at him. "He'll tell you straight out whether he likes your cooking or not. Right, Jacki?"
So the interview ended. I got the job. I should add, also, that the club is a residence hall that caters to grad students, most of them foreigners and visiting professors and researchers. The very first day at the U Club. I made a pork dish, but Jacki didn't eat pork. So I made him some egg foo yung. After he'd eaten, he sauntered into the kitchen, looked at me and said, "That was good. He pointed at Katrina. "Better than her cooking."
Katrina just laughed. "Thanks, Jacki."
Jacki was a professor in one of the engineering schools and his death just a week after that came as quite a shock, and it produced a peculiar kind of sorrow, one that seemed over-budgeted for someone I knew so little and made me take a swift accounting of my life and what I wanted to do with the rest of it. He was my age, that was bad enough, but it felt as if initial encounter during the interview had opened a portal into which I entered and into which he departed and, when we passed each other, he issued me a warning to take care and to take stock.
But it was how the University Club showed its heart to me. Because Cori and Lorraine, the club's other two managers, cared for Jacki's family, including his wife, after they'd arrived from Japan, attending the funeral and wake, which Katrina catered. It was more than a house, more than a hall; it was a home. And I knew right then I would enjoy my time there. And I did.