Stirring it up in the Marketplace kitchen

Lead Cook Branden Revilla discusses his work on the Marketplace Patio at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Margaret Su/The Occidental
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Most Occidental students are still in bed when the first shift of Marketplace staff report to the kitchen, where they labor throughout the morning to prepare lunch. Joseph McKee, cold food production lead, starts his workday at 6 a.m. — five hours before lunch is served. He works nonstop, except for a half-hour lunch and a couple of breaks, until 2:30 p.m.

“It’s just a discipline,” McKee said. “My other job, I had to be up at 3 in the morning to be there at 4 [a.m.], and that was evil. That was just evil. But this, you just have to set your mind to it. You know what you have to do, so you’re not gonna go out partying the night before and expect to get up at 5 in the morning and be here and be any good.”

In addition to making sure that food production stays on track, McKee is responsible for preparing the specialty salads served adjacent to the sandwich bar. Every morning, he prepares about eight bowls of the salad of the day, which he estimates feeds 400 to 500 people. McKee starts making the specialty salad at around 7 a.m. after he has had a chance to sort, label and store incoming produce.

“Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we get all these greens. And when you look at the greens, you go, ‘Oh my god, this is way too much.’ At the end of the day, you go, ‘Oh my god, this is way too little,'” McKee said. 

Production Lead Joseph McKee assembles salad in the Marketplace kitchen at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Margaret Su/The Occidental

Asuzena Bravo, who is a cook B — a step below the lead cooks (cook As), but a step above the part-time staff members (cook Cs) — works the same 6 a.m.–2:30 p.m. shift as McKee. Her role is to prepare the two soups of the day in addition to the Homestyle lunch and meals for children at the on-campus daycare center. The Homestyle station serves a variety of cuisines and is billed as the most affordable cooked food option.

Bravo typically begins her day with the soups, which she can then leave to simmer as she prepares the components of the day’s Homestyle lunch. The children who attend the daycare receive food from the Homestyle station if it is deemed suitable for pickier palates, Bravo said. If not, Marketplace staff prepare tried-and-true favorites such as quesadillas or bean burritos.

Having all the food ready in time for lunch at 11 a.m. can be a challenge, according to Bravo, but she is experienced in feeding hundreds of people on a tight schedule. Currently in her 12th year as a Marketplace staff member, Bravo said she has a good sense of students’ preferences and adjusts food preparation accordingly.

“Let’s say for instance, the sopes, which everybody loves,” Bravo said. “I would make 80 pounds of beef, maybe 100, and we’d fry off maybe 500 sopes, if not more. I’ll do maybe 10 pounds of the soy meat for the vegetarians, and I have no idea [how many pounds of] vegetables but it is a lot.”

According to Bravo, she knows offhand that she would also need a case of tomatoes, half a case of onions and a few bunches of cilantro for the sopes; processing ingredients on a large scale is routine for her.

Lead Cook Branden Revilla discusses his work on the Marketplace Patio at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Margaret Su/The Occidental

For lead cook Branden Revilla, managing numerous concurrent activities in the kitchen is similarly routine. He compared his role to a conductor’s: when he arrives at 11:30 a.m., he ensures that lunch is running smoothly before transitioning food preparation to dinner. Revilla supervises the production of each component of each meal, checking that it meets Executive Chef Michael “Meesh” Montygierd’s standards.

“I wouldn’t serve anything here that I wouldn’t serve to my kids,” Montygierd said.

There is space for creativity in Montygierd’s kitchen. Leftovers are repurposed. Recipes are tweaked.

“There was a leftover chicken dish that involved julienned chicken. Julienned chicken is the stuff that you see at the grill, the stir-fried chicken,” Revilla said. “This wasn’t stir-fried chicken, it was more of a cream-based thing, so I just heated it up in the cream and sort of mashed it up to make it more shredded. And then that went into pasta.”

In addition to experimenting with new ways to use existing ingredients, Marketplace staff create most dish components in-house from start to finish — or, as Bravo described the process, from A to Z.

“I don’t think [students] realize how much stuff is from scratch,” McKee said. “We don’t use a lot of bottled things, we don’t use a lot of premade things. There are things there, but we do a lot from scratch.”

Shelves of metal containers are stored in the Marketplace kitchen at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Margaret Su/The Occidental

The Marketplace’s menu is constantly evolving, changing to reflect both current food trends and the executive chef’s palate. For example, McKee noted the current popularity of quinoa — which he has begun to incorporate into his own diet — and anything multigrain.

According to Bravo, Montygierd introduces a new Homestyle dish to the menu every week or two. She appreciates the variety of her station relative to ones that operate on a recurring basis such as the pasta bar or the grill; having different recipes to work with each day presents a welcome challenge and keeps boredom at bay.

When she works behind the counter serving food to students, Bravo sometimes solicits feedback from them. She then incorporates the feedback into future recipes.

“I know they probably don’t think we do, but we pay attention to a lot of things that the students say, and that’s rewarding to me,” Bravo said. “I love hearing them say that they liked something they had at Chef’s Corner that’s different, or something I’ve made at Homestyle that’s different or that reminds them of home.”

McKee also emphasized the importance of student feedback. He said that they take suggestions seriously and respond to them regardless of whether or not they are able to incorporate them.

“If you write it down and it goes to the office, we’re going to respond to it one way or another, saying we can do this because this or we can’t do this because this, or maybe we can find a compromise to it,” McKee said.

McKee stresses that students’ feedback is valued largely because they are the primary patrons of the Marketplace. Food for catered events, however, is also prepared in the Marketplace kitchen. While some events are predictable and planned well in advance such as Saturday evening wedding receptions, others are last-minute, leaving staff scrambling to have enough food ready in time.

Tubs of ingredients for the salad bar sit on a cart in the Marketplace kitchen at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Margaret Su/The Occidental

“With catering, sometimes … ‘oh, the president has this, he wants it now.’ It’s like. well alright, let me snap my fingers and get this!” McKee said. “A lot of times we have catering last minute or somebody calls, ‘oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to order, you know, 65 sandwiches, can you do it for us?’ Sure we can, sure we can, and that’s when everyone just jumps in … organized chaos.”

Even Montygierd gets his hands dirty, especially when he is short-staffed. He compared a chef’s job to that of a firefighter, putting out “fires” left and right until everything is under control.

“I like to play a game with myself: the more things you can get started at once, the better off you are,” Montygierd said.

The chaos is worth it when students enjoy their food — one of the aspects of the job that McKee, Bravo, Revilla and Montygierd each cited as the most rewarding.

“We work really hard on the meals that the students have here,” Bravo said. “We really put our love into it, and we just try really hard for you all to enjoy the meals we have here for you.”