From The Wall Street Journal
: Ken Cobb taught at culinary school, cooked at country clubs and
hotels and served Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. But his audience
skews much younger these days: the frat brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon
at Southern Methodist University.
"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
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
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
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
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."