For the past 32 years, I have been connected by umbilical cord to Princeton University. Not as a student, mind you, but as a feeder of the minds (and stomachs) of students. Recently I quit, and found the job of my dreams at The Eden Institute. Going from a university chef to starting a culinary program for autistic students was a huge leap and scary, actually. But I’m finally doing what I want.
It all began when I was hired as chef at one of the infamous Princeton Dining Clubs. Anyone familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald knows about these clubs. During his time they were the true definition of elitism.
However, I was hired by the club that was the true antithesis of Princeton elitism. It was called the Terrace Club (the “Alternative Lifestyle Club”) and it was my opportunity to truly learn how to cook. The membership there had been fed for years by a cook lovingly referred to as “Salter Walter.” He would come in early and pump out breakfast and lunch, then stick a dozen #10 cans into a bain marie and call it a day. The dishwasher would open the cans four hours later, dump them into a steam table and voila—dinner. It was easy for me to impress them since the only way I knew how to cook was from scratch. I read every cookbook that I could put my hands on and made every mistake imaginable but I managed to keep the members very happy and slowly became a chef to be reckoned with.
Over the years I worked at several different clubs. Because I was cooking for students I eventually found myself somewhat bored. The only interesting cooking that I was doing was for competitions. I realized that it was time to move on to something else.
In 1998 an opening for the executive catering chef for Princeton University became available and I jumped at the chance to finally start cooking for adults. And not just any adults—we’re talking heads of state, rock stars and anyone else who graced the hallowed halls of Princetonia.
Best career move: Joining the American Culinary Federation and entering national competitions. Working with all of the ACF chefs made my learning curve soar.
Fun at first, but over the years I found myself again becoming bored and jaded by the food I was preparing. I also realized that it was becoming more and more difficult to physically get out of bed in the morning. Some weekends we would prepare 8,000-10,000 white tablecloth meals and I would be there for 15 hours a day. It got to the point where I would have to fall out of bed in order to loosen up enough to walk. I needed a new career that was less physical but still culinary. It was time to start teaching.
Those Who Can, Teach
I began working on my Master’s degree in education at Temple University. I had been teaching at a local community college as an adjunct professor and found that I loved teaching. I wanted to teach at a high school vocational level because I felt that I could have more of an influence working with teenagers. One day I was pissed off at PU and I called a fellow culinary instructor to see if he knew of any openings. He told me that the Eden Institute was actually hoping that I would design their new culinary program for autistic teenagers. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Not only would I be working with teenagers but they would be autistic teenagers. As it happens, I have a 25-year-old son with autism so I was very familiar with the “population,” as they call their students. Not only that, but I am a huge advocate for autistic adults who are unable to find employment. I had been a volunteer at Eden since 1992 when my chef’s association began volunteering for them. I helped develop their camp food program and would cook for the students with my son’s help every summer. It was a perfect fit.
I went to what I thought would be a job interview at Eden prepared to answer all of the classic interview questions like “Why do you want to change from a chef to a teacher?” blah, blah, blah. When I sat down across from Rachel, who I had worked with at camp, I knew that it wouldn’t be that bad. I didn’t realize it but I was pretty much hired before I even met with her. In fact, the first thing that she said to me was, “When you start here…..”
That’s all I needed. I couldn’t believe I had the job of my dreams! Not only that but I would be developing the first vocational program for autistic students in the entire country. Now all I had to do was tell Princeton.
That was pretty much my boss’s reaction. No one leaves Princeton University. Truly.
Still, once the shock wore off, everyone in Dining Services was happy for me, partly because I wasn’t leaving them for another college or catering company. They wished me well and threw me a little going away party, during which the director read a poem he wrote expounding on all of the mistakes that I had made over the past 11 years. That’s Princeton for you.
Larry Frazer, CEC, AAC was Executive Chef at and for Princeton University. Currently he is Culinary Arts Instructor for The Eden Institute/Eden Autism Services.
Stay tuned for the second installment in September 2010:
“Oh my God! What was I thinking?” Or how I went from pure panic mode to pure gratitude mode. Some things are just meant to be.