Hooked on Cooking

This campus chef has students eating out of his hand.

May/June 2002

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Hooked on Cooking

Barbara Ries

Evan Barth laughs when he hears other people talk about gaining the “Freshman 15” during their first year of college. “I actually lost 15 pounds freshman year,” he says, “but the following year I gained it all back.” He puts the blame for the gain squarely on campus chef Dennis Walker. Nearly six years after graduation, Barth, ’96, MS ’99, still remembers his favorite Walker specialty: paella with Cajun sausage and shrimp.

Walker, ’79, works at Beefeaters, one of four dining societies in the Suites, a set of student residences in Governor’s Corner. Each weekday, he prepares lunch and dinner for about 60 sophomores, juniors and seniors. Walker also cooks snacks for study breaks, hosts an annual pumpkin-carving night and makes a fancy dinner each quarter.

It’s as if those 60 students have a personal chef. For one thing, Walker’s offerings more closely resemble the menu of a trendy San Francisco restaurant than typical dorm fare. (During one week this year, he served up slow-roasted tri-tip steak, shiitake mushroom tarts, seared ahi tuna, massaman beef curry and Hawaiian chicken.) And Walker doesn’t just want to fill students’ stomachs; he wants to feed their souls. “I believe that cooking for someone else is not just feeding them, but also nurturing them,” he wrote in an introduction e-mailed to students last fall. “I want to feed you well, take good care of you, so you can do your best at Stanford.”

Walker first learned to love cooking from someone who took care of him. As a child standing beside his mother, Carol, ’48, in the family kitchen, Walker learned to make perfect pie crusts (“don’t handle the dough too much”) and to whip up tangy vinaigrette. During high school, he spent summers cooking in restaurants in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M. After his freshman year on the Farm, Walker ditched the dorms and lived off campus, preparing his own meals. Still, cooking didn’t seem like a viable career back then. “It’s not something you graduate from Stanford and do,” says the political science major.

Instead, Walker went to work at a Bay Area car dealership. But after a decade, spent mostly as a finance manager, he realized he was “just pushing papers around without adding value to anything.” Walker wanted to pursue a career that would let him take care of people and work with his hands, so he enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

By the time he graduated in 1993, Walker had decided he wanted a job cooking for people he could get to know. While his academy classmates went off to prove themselves at A-list restaurants, he came straight to Beefeaters.

Part of the joy in his job, Walker says, is seeing the students grow and change. By June, he successfully serves brussels sprouts, beets, Swiss chard and spinach to kids who might have disdained them in September. His trick? Finding a student who likes those foods already and getting him or her to talk them up. Walker also hangs out in the dining room during meals to gauge students’ reactions and to answer questions about ingredients or how a dish was cooked. “I like seeing that they are getting something good and that they are secure and comfortable here,” he says.

Walker also appreciates how compatible his job is with family life. Most chefs work long hours and are on duty evenings, weekends and holidays. Walker comes in between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. and is able to leave around 6 p.m. to enjoy time with his wife, Robin Severns, ’79, an architect, and their children, Nathan, 5, and Irene, almost 2. He typically takes home plates of food, so he’s not stuck in the kitchen making dinner after a whole day cooking for others at work.

Walker’s workday may be short for a chef, but it’s certainly busy. Although Beefeaters has hashers to do the dishes, Walker is the only employee who prepares food. To serve meals on time, he must plan carefully and stick to his schedule. If shortbread cookies are on the lunch menu, he mixes up the dough and gets those into the oven first thing in the morning. Then he turns to cutting up pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, mango and grapes for the fruit salad and getting the salad bar ready. Walker prepares the hot dishes—chicken breast sandwiches, vegetable noodle casserole and roast potato wedges—last, so they are fresh when students arrive at noon. Then, after a break, he turns his attention to dinner. If it’s a tri-tip and salmon night, for example, he slow-roasts seven two- to three-pound pieces of beef, cooks three 10- to 12-pound fish, mashes 30 pounds of potatoes, steams 11 pounds of asparagus and glazes 11 to 12 pounds of carrots. He does all this in a stainless-steel kitchen with just two oversized ovens and a six-burner gas stove.

Another challenge is making high-quality meals on a modest budget. Board bills in the Suites run $1,150 to $1,250 per student per quarter, and student managers allocate about half those funds for food (most of the remainder goes to salaries). Walker negotiates with suppliers and orders food by phone, managing to serve things like quality cuts of beef and fresh fish a couple of times a week. “He’s good at maximizing the money we give him,” says Jamey Gifford, Beefeaters’ financial manager.

The biggest downside to his job, Walker says, is occasionally arriving to find damage from heavy partying the night before. One time, someone gouged the wall of the lounge with a pool stick. Another night, some students took melons and smashed them on the ground outside Beefeaters. Walker is philosophical about such incidents: “Half of this job is getting along with the members.”

By all accounts, Walker gets along with them pretty well. “He’s committed to pleasing people,” says Gifford, ’01, who has eaten at Beefeaters for three years. Gifford recalls a student whose favorite Walker dishes were barbecued chicken and macaroni and cheese. “He asked, ‘Could we have those together one night?’” Gifford says. “The next Friday, Dennis did it.”

Barth, who has stayed in touch with Walker since graduation, remembers his generosity. The 6-foot-5 chef, he says, was a softie, willing to share recipes and teach basic knife-handling skills. One night, Barth arrived at Beefeaters just as the last dishes were being cleared. The leftovers are always wrapped up in the refrigerator, so he helped himself to some fajitas. When he went to sit down, he found that Walker had chopped up a small dish of fresh salsa, just for him.

Of course, students are also quick to point out the bottom line: the food’s good. “He’s an extremely talented chef,” Gifford says. “He incorporates an amazing amount of variety, from traditional things to Thai food or Indian or Chinese. It’s the best food on campus, and that’s why I go back.”

Christine Foster is a Stanford contributing writer living in Mountain View.

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