Executive Chef Martin Fernandez began work at Occidental Aug. 19, 2019 following the departure of previous Executive Chef Michael “Meesh” Montygierd Summer 2019. Fernandez came to Campus Dining from a previous job running the kitchen at the Long Beach Art Museum, where he worked for almost 15 years. Campus Dining employees said Fernandez brings an open-minded attitude, experience in sustainable cooking and a care for the needs of the students to Occidental.
According to Associate Vice President for Hospitality Services Amy Muñoz, Fernandez is only the fifth executive chef Occidental has had in 36 years. Muñoz said after Montygierd left in June for personal family reasons, the hiring process took several months and involved sifting through 103 applicants. The process included six interviews with different groups on campus, including students, dining staff and union representatives, as well as members of the administration.
“What we’re looking for in an executive chef is so much more than just a good chef, meaning it’s a highly administrative position,” Muñoz said.
According to Muñoz, Fernandez’s experience in nonprofits meant that he was open to working with a lot of different constituencies, such as staff, students and faculty.
Marketplace Service Optimizations Coordinator Monica Jones said she knew from the moment Fernandez walked into the door of the interview that he was the one to hire. According to Jones, his refined demeanor and open-mindedness stood out.
“He’s well-polished, he knows how to speak to people,” Jones said. “He knows how to invite your ideas, and then mold them to make something better out of it.”
According to Chef de Cuisine Conrado Gomez, Fernandez has the ability to be receptive to the needs of the Campus Dining staff. Gomez said he values Fernandez’s openness to learning about how to work with a union.
“So far, Executive Chef Martin has shown that he really cares for the staff, the group,” Gomez said.
According to Fernandez, understanding the staff dynamic and learning from the processes that were already in place was a big part of ensuring a smooth transition between executive chefs.
“If it’s been working without me for so long, there’s no need to come in and reinvent the wheel,” Fernandez said. “But I felt that it was important to learn the personalities that all work here, learn the processes that we have in place, and then just take it from there.”
According to Fernandez, his experience at a farm-to-table restaurant in Maine for two years taught him a lot about running a kitchen sustainably.
“With that restaurant, we were looking at all local vendors, which means within a 100-mile radius,” Fernandez said. “I think it really changed the way I approach food, coming from that kind of cooking.”
Jones said Fernandez has a clear understanding of what Oxy students value in a meal, in part due to his youth and his interest in keeping up with the culinary scene.
“He gets that the students are on the higher spectrum of food, and they understand their food and they want their food to be organic, local, sustainable,” Jones said.
According to Muñoz, Fernandez’s awareness of current food trends also makes him a good fit for Occidental.
“I think when you’re working in nonprofit, especially an art museum, you have to be on the cutting edge for your donors and big donor events,” Muñoz said. “And that has always translated for me into something that’s good for our catering program and also good for our students, because we try to stay on the cutting edge of college dining.”
Jones said Fernandez is particularly adept at keeping up with culinary fads.
“The students are always looking for something new,” Jones said. “They’re always looking for the next food trend. They’re always looking to stay on top of what’s hip in the neighborhood, and I think he’s got that. He knows what’s new, what’s out there, what’s good.”
Fernandez said the part of working at Occidental that has been most difficult for him is staying on top of students’ various dietary restrictions. Jones and Gomez said creating inclusive menus is something Fernandez does particularly well. According to Gomez, one change Fernandez has made to the Marketplace menu is replacing the breaded shrimp in the Wednesday lunch shrimp tacos with a fish that is not breaded in order to accommodate gluten intolerant students.
Fernandez said there will be other changes to the menu going forward, but that he is going slowly in order to make sure he fully understands the way the system runs.
“I’m sure there will be changes made,” Fernandez said. “You need to stay current and make changes just to be on par with what’s happening in the culinary scene.”
Gomez said as Fernandez makes adjustments to the Marketplace, he is listening carefully to student feedback.
“Little by little, he’s adding something every week to it,” Gomez said. “Chef Martin is very proactive on adding those ideas from students and Oxy staff into the Marketplace menu.”