10 Questions With A Fraternity Chef
When you sit down and talk to a fraternity chef, you expect to hear horror stories of dirty kitchens, poor conditions, and Solo cups scattered everywhere. This wasn’t the case when I sat down with Chad Weller, the current chef for Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity at Penn State and an employee of Happy Valley Home Cooking.
When sitting down with Chef Chad, I learned a lot about his life, including stories of his upbringing, what it’s like to work for a fraternity opposed to a restaurant, and what he’s enjoyed most about his time with Greek life at Penn State.
Onward State: What made you decide to become a chef?
Chef Chad: It was one of the three professions I knew I wanted to be when I was a kid. I either wanted to be a chef, or I wanted to be a masseuse, or I wanted to be a psychologist. When I was a young kid I would always get this kick out of making pancakes for my family. I think I did it the first time when I was eight. I thought it was so cool to make something that everyone else liked and ate. I had three older brothers, and when they would be outside playing I would come inside and make Kool-Aid; I just thought it was the coolest shit to make something that everyone liked and ate.
I get gratification from it because I like to make people happy. People always wonder what the meaning of life is for people, and from a young age I had a vision of what the meaning of life was and that was to find a way to make other people happy.
OS: When you graduated from high school, did you immediately go to culinary school?
CC: I came from a very poor family and no one in my family has ever been to college before. I worked for Josten’s — the yearbook factory — and I did that right out of high school to make money and in the summers I was a concessionaire, where I did stuff like funnel cakes, lemonade, and pizza. I had always wanted to get into food and wanted to go to culinary school, but I was never sure if it was ever going to be possible, so I did some research and started seeing that after you turn 25 you’re eligible for more grants. At that time I had met my now ex-wife, and I helped her get through nursing school and she turned around and helped me get through culinary school.
OS: When you graduated culinary school, did you immediately start working for Happy Valley Home Cooking?
CC: I’ve bounced around quite a bit. I did my externship at the Penn Stater, which I absolutely loved. The chef style there was amazing, but they weren’t hiring right out of the externship. They gave me credits and paid me minimum wage, but they didn’t have any positions and to get anything good there was union-based. I put applications out, and I started at The Village at Penn State, which I didn’t like because I didn’t like the chef there at all.
One of my other applications came through so I took that and I was at Hi-Way Pizza for a little bit as a kitchen manager there. Six months after that, an application came back for Mad Mex, and I was a banquet chef and assistant kitchen manager for about five years.
I started getting more into the management side of things and worked at Sheetz for a while as an assistant manager and managed a bunch of the Subways around State College. I initially turned down the job with Happy Valley Home Cooking because Subway told me they’d cut my hours and increase my pay until I got screwed out of a $4,000 bonus. I took the job here and I’ve loved it since.
OS: How many fraternities have you worked in before coming here?
CC: I’ve worked at Pi Lambda Phi for three years, I did Sammy for one year, and I did the catering kitchen for a year, which serviced four different houses, but they didn’t have enough members in house to have a chef. That was right in the middle of all the hazing scandals and houses seeing the repercussions with the numbers of members. That was in 2018. I came here (Alpha Gamma Rho) at the end of last year and have been here since.
OS: What’s different about working here as opposed to working for a restaurant?
CC: Some people don’t have the temperament for it, but for me it’s perfect. It is the best of both worlds. The one thing was that I always liked working in a restaurant environment because you’ve got that creativity, or organized chaos, where there’s so much going on that you have to be on your game, but you’re working a lot of hours a week and you almost never get to interact with the guests and see them eat your food. That’s why I love this environment so much…because you get that.
You get the hustle sometimes to get the food out on time and you get to create your own recipes for every single item. But I also get to interact with the guys and serve the guys, and that’s my favorite part: serving the guys and getting feedback from the food and knowing that I’ve made something that you guys have enjoyed.
OS: So do you think the benefit of working in a fraternity kitchen is the interaction?
CC: The benefit of it is that it gives you a lifestyle that most restaurants don’t afford you. You’re never going to work at a restaurant and never have weekends and never have holidays and be able to work a consistent schedule. It just doesn’t happen. Especially after working in management, I love only having to rely on me to get stuff done. I can think of so many times where I’ve had to go back in because a closer didn’t show up and it’s like I just worked a full shift and I have to go back in and close the restaurant. So it’s pretty much all plus for me.
OS: Do you think it’s harder to make good food all the time in a fraternity kitchen environment as opposed to a professional kitchen?
CC: There’s certainly challenges to overcome. You’re definitely limited in what you can do, and it’s an adjustment process. It’s not necessarily easier or harder. It’s an adjustment you have to get used to from — not only the quality of product you’re getting because of the relatively tight budget, but also never knowing what kind of situation you’re coming into like not knowing what pans will be available to use or whether the equipment works well. There’s certain things you have to get used to and you have to customize your menu a little bit based on where you are.
OS: What’s the best experience you’ve had working with fraternities?
CC: One of the best experiences was having some of my pre-conceived notions dispelled about there being a lot of entitled, reckless, rude fraternities. Also seeing how earnest and caring they truly were, and even having some of them come to me with questions so I could give them advice. Another good experience was when brothers came to my mother’s funeral and help pay for the costs.
OS: Going off that, do you think discretion is a big part of the job?
CC: Absolutely. You have to build trust with the boys. I want the house I’m in to trust me. While yes, I am working for my bosses, I always try to think of the boys as my employers because they’re the ones I’m trying to make happy ultimately.
OS: What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?
CC: It’s typically after breaks. I’ve seen where they didn’t touch the sink at all and left dishes in there and there was just giant, fuzzy growth everywhere. I’ve seen containers of piss. My first eye-opening experience was when I first started working at a fraternity, and they were literally cleaning up with snow shovels. They would just take giant snow shovels and pick up all the beer bottles and cans. It’s not necessarily gross, but that was my first system shock like “Wow, that really happens like that.”
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