From Backpacks to Chefs' Hats

Feb. 5, 2013

Kevin Lau, executive chef of the Arizona Student Unions, radiates warmth like fresh-baked bread as he moves through the kitchen.

“How many you gotta make?” he banters with a student worker, looking over her shoulder at the prep table strewn with raw ingredients for parfaits.

“Eighty-six,” she says with an overwhelmed smile.

“You got a light day today, huh?” he quips and their shared laughter lightens her load, at least a pinch.

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Preparing and serving thousands of meals every day, the students and staff of the Student Unions kitchen tackle an immense job – one that starts early, finishes late and never ends.

As for Lau, who goes by “Chef Kevin,” his workday can begin as early as 5 o’clock in the morning.

“I make my rounds, I say good morning to every single person that’s under me, I go through the kitchen, and I go back to my office to get everything ready and then start my day.”

Soaking Up Instruction

“Kevin’s role in the kitchen is really one of instruction,” says Joel Hauff, interim director of the Arizona Student Unions. “His job is to make sure that everyone who’s working in there – the staff that we have and the students that are working down there – really understand what it takes to prepare food.”

Not only does Chef Kevin know what it takes, but he’s an expert at helping teams soak up that same understanding. He appreciates each individual not only for what they can do in the kitchen, but also for what they are here at the University to become.

“They’re very good. They’re very conscientious of what they do in the kitchen, where they are, how they are learning things,” he says. “They’re sponges that are learning, so it makes it very easy to teach them.”

A Taste of Life Lessons

Wesley Smyth, an undergraduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, figured that a job in the kitchen would do more for him than just help pay the bills. He wanted to pick up some cooking skills as well as what he calls “man skills, so it’s not just Hamburger Helper every night.”

Smyth is learning all that and more. At work, he’s teams with people from all walks of life. “It’s not just people who are going to school; you’ve got people who’ve been working their whole lives and you see that and it’s great to have that to keep you grounded.”

Like Smyth, undergraduate history and anthropology student Emily Burton is supplementing her education by serving as a baker’s assistant. She appreciates all that Chef Kevin cooks up to make it a great place to work.

“I enjoy working for Chef Kevin,” she says. “He makes a point to know all the students and he always says hello when he’s walking by.”

Chock Full of Valuable Skills

According to Hauff, the student workers in the kitchen are gaining exactly the kinds of skills they’ll need to succeed after they complete their degrees.

“Most employers are looking for students that have broader experience in terms of leading and managing and understanding the needs of a complex environment,” he says. “We’re able to provide that.”

Working with Chef Kevin and the kitchen team, students gain those skills working with teams and even supervising other staff members. They take on real business functions like scheduling, payroll and even staff evaluations.

“Those are all real-world skills that they’re going to take and move on to wherever it is that they go next,” says Hauff.

What makes for an effective environment to learn all these great recipes for success in life? It all comes back to Chef Kevin’s style, which makes everyone feel important and supported, like they’re part of the same family.

“I love working with the student workers,” he says. “I treat them like my family, my own kids.”