Monday March 14, 2011
"You're putting soup on your chicken?" Mr. Cobb asked one of the brothers during a recent buffet lunch.
"Oh, that's soup?" the brother replied.
In fact, it was tomato soup with roasted jalapeño and chipotle peppers that Mr. Cobb had whipped up for a Thursday lunch at both SAE and a second house, Sigma Phi Epsilon. Dinner that night: free-range ribeye steak with rosemary-infused red potatoes, fresh spinach and strawberry salad with candied walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette and homemade apple pie à la mode. "When I was in college, all I wanted was a cheeseburger," Mr. Cobb says.
Foodie culture is going Greek. Mr. Cobb is one of a growing number of chefs with top-notch résumés moving into the kitchens of frat houses across the country. Chefs say they're looking for less-stressful gigs that allow for more family time than restaurant jobs, while frats are hoping for something tastier and healthier than wings and burgers.
"Last semester we had crab legs one time," says Robert Mills, an SMU junior. "I was kind of shocked."
Cafeteria food has been improving for years as schools compete for top students, but there's an attention to detail in the fanciest—and wealthiest—frat kitchens that's hard to replicate on a larger scale, down to the organic vegetables and free-range chicken.Chef Mike Noyes, recently hired by Phi Gamma Delta at SMU, eschews regular butter for his garlic bread, preferring maître d'hôtel butter—a five-pound block hand-mixed with parsley, oregano, salt, pepper and garlic. Mr. Cobb has the luxury of slow-cooking his beef for hours at a lower temperature to make his entrée more tender.
Many of these chefs say they wouldn't trade Fraternity Row for anything, what with their evenings, weekends and holidays off. Mr. Cobb says he works 187 days a year and spends his summers in a trailer touring the U.S. and Mexico.
"It's tough working for high-end people who want you to be their full-time slave," says Darlene Barnes of her old job as a personal chef.
These days, she's teaching the brothers of Alpha Sigma Phi at the University of Washington about the benefits of locally grown produce and writing a blog called Fraternity Kitchen. Mr. Noyes adds of the restaurant jobs he used to have around Dallas: "I haven't had a chef throw a pot at me in a long time, but it can happen. You come home smelling like a fryer and the hours are terrible."
Etienne Merle is a fifth-generation chef who ran a French restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., for 21 years. Now he cooks for the Cornell University chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha. He works from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a midafternoon break, hours so heavenly compared to his old life, he says, he doesn't feel like he's working. Not that he's slacking—one night last semester Mr. Merle presented his house with a 2 1/2-foot tall tower of creampuffs dipped in caramel sugar called a croquembouche for dessert.
David D'Aprix attended the Culinary Institute of America, has opened eight restaurants and taught at Cornell's hotel school. Now head chef at Cornell's Phi Kappa Psi house, he recently prepared an ornate meal for parents' weekend: salmon baked with chipotle remoulade, an intermezzo of blood orange sorbet, duck roasted with tart cherry sauce on pecan rice and three chocolate mousses.
Frat chefs' pay is often a step down from what they can earn in restaurants. Ms. Barnes earns $3,400 a month from September to May, without benefits, plus a $4,500 bonus if she hits budget goals. But chefs are often allowed to use their fraternity kitchens for side catering jobs.
Plus, these chefs work for an audience that thanks them instead of complaining that the soup needs more salt. Chefs say the students are happy just to have something for dinner beyond reheated tater tot casserole.
Frat life also creates new complications for the chefs. Some say they need to make sure their kitchens are locked during off-hours to prevent drunken raids by brothers with the munchies or in search of large baking sheets that can double as sleds on snowy days. During years when SAE has a canine mascot, Mr. Cobb says, he has to make sure the dog stays out of the kitchen. (This was never an issue with Hot Sauce, the rooster who spent a year in the frat's backyard.) Mr. Cobb has witnessed jalapeño-eating contests and failed attempts to eat spoonfuls of pure cinnamon, which is too dry to swallow in large quantities.
Down the street from Mr. Cobb's house, Mr. Noyes was recently prepping a steak dinner for the young men of Phi Gamma Delta. As he talked, screams erupted from pledge activities in the next room.
Asked to explain the commotion, Mr. Noyes replied, "Who knows? It's living with cavemen a little bit. They played lacrosse in there the other day."
In a pre-Thanksgiving tradition at the Chi Phi chapter at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., brothers throw cold duck at each other. Their chef, Julia Enerson, witnessed better behavior when she catered a meal that served the governor of New Jersey. But Ms. Enerson says she forgives the brothers, adding that one once called her a "goddess of awesomeness."
Of course, the budding Greek gourmands don't always toast the finished product. Mr. Noyes says an osso buco he served seemed to confuse his diners, and Mr. Cobb says his southern boys love catfish but make faces at salmon. "That was dicey, at best. It just looked suspicious," says SAE senior Phillip Bonafair. Sophomore Fritz Blue of Tulsa says he appreciates the good food and healthy options at his house, but he still makes late-night Taco Bell runs: "I haven't gained any weight, so I'm happy."
Cooking for his Cornell frat boys, Mr. D'Aprix says he sometimes misses the action of a restaurant kitchen now that his work is so much easier. He's promised a friend with a new Ithaca eatery to help out in the kitchen now and then to get a taste of his old life: "It's that whiskey at the end of the shift that's a thrill. You've earned it."