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Skilled chefs and kitchen staff members help keep campus fed

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Three people sort melons in an industrial kitchen.
Staff members sort and store melons at the production kitchen in Jester. Photo by Joshua Guenther

Every weekday at 5:30 a.m., Thomas O’Donohue, the executive sous-chef of Littlefield Patio Cafe, arrives to set up the kitchen before his line cooks arrive for service. His breakfast cook, Koe Koe, arrives at 6, and lunch cook Gavin Dabbs starts his shift an hour later.

O’Donohue has been at University Housing and Dining for 17 years, but he didn’t always work with food. Right out of college he went into computer hardware and software sales. In his early 30s, he started a new career path, attending the culinary school at Baltimore International College before landing at the famous Inn at Little Washington in Virginia for two years.

“Getting an internship there — I really had to fight for it. … They wanted to see how I handle the pressure,” O’Donohue says. “What’s the old saying? Shoot for the stars, you might hit the moon? I hit the stars. I was really, really lucky.”

It was a fast-paced, high-stress world of $400 tabs, strong teamwork and colleagues who moved on to become James Beard Award-winning chefs. When a couple dining at the inn offered O’Donohue a job as their private chef in West Lake Hills, he says, he moved to Austin and eventually landed at UT, where he uses his culinary skills to serve some very different diners.

When students enter a campus dining hall, they often simply point at what they want, take it and walk away. Few will ever know whose hands are responsible for the food they eat. Most of the staff members who work in the kitchens on campus might be seen only in passing during a shift change.

These kitchens are characterized by hard work, odd hours, high volume, accurate timing, extreme health safety, multitudes of dietary restrictions, quick consumption and quick cleanup.

On any given day, chefs, cooks and administrators are expected to feed the 7,200 students who live on campus while school is in session. That does not include students who live off campus but eat at the facilities, or staff and faculty members who dine there.

University Housing and Dining offers all-you-care-to-eat dining halls in Jester and Kinsolving as well as a la carte service at Jester City Limits, Littlefield Patio Cafe and Cypress Bend Café in San Jacinto Residence Hall. There are also grab-and-go kiosks peppered throughout campus, and UHD recently added a boba tea spot next to Jester City Limits and is opening a build-your-own-pizza operation.

Dining Director Rene Rodriguez keeps tabs on all food operations happening throughout campus. 

“I ran restaurants in the outside world at a big corporation, Furr’s Cafeterias, for 13 years. The corporation moved me here, and then I came to UT 20 years ago,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez says he hires highly experienced executive chefs and executive sous-chefs who also worked for large corporate food operations and then gives them liberty to implement their own kitchen brigade system of line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers.

The support from the team is incredible. They’re here every day, and they always strive to go the extra mile.

Dympna Roman

Dympna Roman is chef unit manager of the Jester production kitchen, in the basement of Jester Hall. The facility she manages is responsible for all the prep for both Jester dining outlets, the campus’s prepared grab-and-go foods and some items served at other dining facilities.

Roman graduated with a degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute in Dallas. She and her husband moved to California, where she quickly climbed the ladder at the restaurants in Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa at Mammoth Lakes. As is common in the industry, she had little to no vacation time, worked long nights, missed holidays and barely saw her family, and she says she loved it — the rush, the camaraderie. But, her life had no balance.

Now Roman sacrifices some of the culinary creativity she once had, she says, for the largest kitchen facility on campus, a team that she calls family and a 3 p.m. cutoff time so she can pick up her son from school.

Jester’s production kitchen has four 150-gallon steam kettles (for boiling pasta or potatoes or braising meat) that look like single-occupancy hot tubs. The bakery has a walk-in-closet-style oven that grabs onto racks, spinning them around so 20 trays of dinner rolls and cookies can be baked evenly to golden-brown perfection. And the hot prep line has a conveyor rotisserie box that roasts at least 40 briskets at a time.

At the opposite end of the kitchen, Roman stands at the prepared food packing station, 30 clipboards on the table in front of her, as her staff runs around her.

“The support from the team is incredible. They’re here every day, and they always strive to go the extra mile,” Roman says.

Students who live on campus live off this food, so it needs to be good. Options are key. Pizza, vegan pizza, gluten-free pizza; veggie curries with brown rice, white rice or turmeric rice; stations for barbecue, Cajun food, Caribbean food; samosas, stir-fry, chicken and waffles, breakfast all day, quesadillas, salmon with roasted Brussels sprouts, more vegan options, more gluten-free options — all are found at Kinsolving.

“The tofu is delicious. That sauce is so good,” says Dane Cessac, chef manager at Kinsolving Dining. “And all over here is all about plant power, so it’s vegetables and vegan options.”

Cessac began his career in the culinary world by diving in headfirst.

“In the late mid-’90s, I had a printing company,” he says. “I sold it because I wanted to get into the food business. I opened up a little Cajun restaurant/icehouse and was in way over my head.”

After closing his business, Cessac moved to Austin, worked at a couple of restaurants in the city and attended Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. He had an internship at Walt Disney World before landing a job back in Austin at Whole Foods Market. Four years ago, Cessac left his role as prepared food division manager and a team of 200 employees to come to UT.

“I wanted to work for The University of Texas and run an actual kitchen. An opportunity opened up here, I jumped on it, and I’ve been loving it ever since,” he says.

Cessac supervises the largest concentration of young culinary school interns and graduates. At Kinsolving, Cessac prides himself on having a talented staff who create a culturally diverse and nutritiously conscious spread for students each day. His glass-door walk-in refrigerators are immaculately organized and labeled inside. As he walks up and down the aisle of his kitchen, he is eager to introduce all his talented cooks and give them an opportunity to explain what they are making for dinner service that night.

“It’s just not the chef manager. It’s the executive sous. It’s the sous-chef and especially those cooks and chefs in the kitchen. They are the ones that work exceptionally hard,” Cessac says.