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Lists, meetings and 40,000 meals: A day in the life of Market’s executive chef

Courtesy+of+Abdou+Cole
Courtesy of Abdou Cole

Courtesy of Abdou Cole

Courtesy of Abdou Cole

By Alexa Bakalarski / Staff Writer

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Mid-morning Wednesday, Chris Cox looked down at one of his three notepads.

He knew he had to fill and send out two or three large food orders, with the help of a few student workers. And write the Food Committee meeting menu. And meet with his three sous — French for “under” — chefs to figure out scheduling before spring break.

He also knew he had to figure out what he wanted to order for the Friday before the break and the Sunday dinner after.

“This is like my brain on paper,” Cox said.

That day, he also had three meetings, including a weekly marketing meeting and a meeting with Pitt’s food recovery group — a student organization that helps reduce food waste — at 4 p.m. But he puts those notes in different notepads than his day-to-day ones.

“Nothing ever really stops here,” he said.

With his manager duties, Cox goes through a notebook a week, and only spends about four to five hours a week cooking in Market Central, Pitt’s main dining hall.

Pitt hired Cox, a Pennsylvania-born and Pittsburgh-trained chef, as Market Central’s new head chef in January. Cox runs the kitchen, organizes ingredients, manages more than 60 Sodexo cooks in the back kitchen, meets with Student Government Board and caters to students’ individual dietary needs. As he transitions into the role full time, he shares the duties with the former head chef, Corey Hawk, who is now working on opening his own business.

Together, they are working to increase the amount of locally grown food and help students and staff make healthier choices, and still serve 40,000 meals a week.

When Hawk briefly stops in the office Wednesday, March 2, the two discuss upcoming events and ordering around spring break and Hawk offers to lead Cox through the steps he took to close Market for spring break in previous years.

For Cox, the five minutes spent with Hawk replace three hours discussing the same topics in meetings.

Cox walks fast, too, as he moves through the back kitchen to check on the icing he’s mixing, which he usually doesn’t do. Today, though, he offered to lend a hand.

While Cox scoops and scrapes the icing out of the mixing bowl, a glob of it falls on his black trousers. He tries not to get stains on his clothes before going to meetings, but that can be tough to avoid even as an executive chef.

Cox, 33, dedicated his life to creating food. He grew up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and gradutated from Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Downtown Pittsburgh in 2005.

He worked at Giant Eagle’s Market District in Shadyside for two years before cooking at Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen & Wine Bar, Bistecca Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grille.

Cox sees similarities between his experience working at higher-end restaurants and Market, such as one-on-one training with cooks while making recipes from scratch.

“Having a product at the end of the day that I’m proud of and can stand behind is a goal of mine,” Cox said.

At Market, Cox’s favorite meal is stir fry from 360 Degrees drenched in sriracha. At home, he likes to cook Asian and Italian food, occasionally practicing upcoming recipes for Market.

With hopes of someday starting his own business, Cox received a bachelor’s in business administration from Pitt in 2012. After he graduated, he worked for Aldi as the district manager where he learned about the food industry on a larger scale. Then, before coming to Market Central, Cox spent two years as the executive chef for Pitt’s University Club. Hawk said he and others at Market Central are looking to Cox to apply his background to serve better food to students and meet their needs.

As Cox takes over the new role, Abdou Cole, resident district manager of Sodexo, said Sodexo plans for him to increase interaction and feedback between students and employees.

“Compared to the past when the executive chef spent the majority of his/her time in the kitchen, today’s Market Central chef has come out of the kitchen along with the food to the front of students,” Cole said in an email. “Chris and Corey’s role is now more interactive with a face-to-face customer service approach.”

Cox and Hawk meet with different student organizations — including the Vegan Collective, the Gluten Free Awareness League and the Real Food Challenge initiative — to improve Market’s service and sustainability.

“I’d say about 15 to 20 percent [of the executive chef’s job] is direct interaction, but 90 percent of the time, you have the students’ needs in the forefront of the work that happens every day,” Hawk said.

Market staff also meets with students biweekly at Friday Food Committee meetings in the William Pitt Union where students tell administration what they would like to see, from sustainability initiatives and gluten-free breakfast options to increasing the availability of seltzer water.

Food Committee co-chair and Student Government Board member Jacky Chen said he’s looking forward to working with Cox throughout the semester with the Food Committee.

“Right away, I could see he’s really enthusiastic,” Chen said. “He’s just someone who seems like he wants to help these students as much as he can.”

According to Cole, student comments at Food Committee meetings led to about 60 changes in the fall semester and more than 100 in 2015. These changes included extending night hours at campus dining facilities and adding more vegan and vegetarian options to menus.

“The feedback we get is really important because that kind of drives the menu choices, the ingredient choices and just a lot of the decisions that are made in the back of the house,” Cox said. “It’s based on what students tell us. We really try to deliver.”

As the Student Government Board’s Food Committee has shown, Pitt students care about eating healthy food, starting sustainability initiatives and setting up farmer’s markets on campus.

“Food is becoming part of the student body,” Hawk said. ‘We are really looking forward to enhancing that process and … continue to find those opportunities where we can really make a difference with the food we serve.”

While juggling meal plans weeks in advance and meeting students’ needs, Cox said it is also fun to be creative while still adhering to the demands of ordering in bulk.

“It’s kind of like putting together a puzzle,” Cox said. “You have the pieces, and you’ve got to figure out how to make it fit.”

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Lists, meetings and 40,000 meals: A day in the life of Market’s executive chef