It’s Alumni Awards Weekend and Chef Bob De Nicola and his staff begin a four-day campaign to feed hundreds of university guests
Bob De Nicola zips across the kitchen, his chef’s hat aglow under the fluorescent lights. The kitchen is all stainless steel, industrial-sized appliances and assorted foodstuffs: gallon jugs of red wine vinegar, six-pound cans of tomato sauce, boxes and boxes of pasta.
This is University Catering’s home base, a modest-sized room tucked in a back hallway in Alumni Memorial Union. Thousands of meals are dreamed up and created here. It’s no place for slackers. De Nicola and his assistants have been known to work seven days a week, their shifts stretching from
7 a.m. to 10 p.m. or later. Even when Marquette is closed for breaks, they’re busy in the kitchen, preparing for special events.
“Basically, we work when everyone else is having fun,” says De Nicola, who manages catering and the union’s Lunda Room restaurant.
A nearby wall is papered with the week’s assignments. President Robert Wild’s dinner with special guests. Brunch for the Office of Student Development. Lunch for a big donor. It’s early March, and De Nicola’s team is charging toward its busiest project of the season, Alumni National Awards Weekend — four days packed with events that culminate in a black-tie dinner. $75 a plate. Four-hundred people. High expectations.
It’s still eight weeks away, but De Nicola is already planning. He’s not the only one. It takes an army of event organizers, wait staff and other Marquette employees to pull off this event that honors the university’s top alumni award winners.
De Nicola grew up in an Italian-American family that was passionate about food. His mother managed the kitchen at home; his father managed the family’s pizzeria. As the oldest of six kids, De Nicola was making pizza dough at his father’s side when he was 13.
“I think it was a way to keep me out of trouble,” he says.
Later he earned a culinary degree before working for 15 years at Milwaukee-area country clubs. Three and a half years ago, De Nicola came to work for Marquette’s food-service provider, Sodexho. Now his award-winning work is tasted by the university’s most notable guests. In October he received a standing ovation during a dinner for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He shouldn’t have been allowed in the dining room — he wasn’t on the Secret Service-approved list — but after the Liberian visitors tasted his Caribbean chicken, they insisted.
The pace at Marquette is less grueling than the country club life. Most days, De Nicola can leave before dark to get home to his wife, Julie.
It’s a different story when spring hits campus, bringing with it a flood of catering requests. Fortunately, De Nicola doesn’t mind the adrenaline rush. He starts planning the menus for the colleges’ awards receptions weeks in advance. The black-tie dinner gets special attention; he presents three or four entrée options, and event organizers choose their favorite. This year the menu isn’t finalized until the week before the event, so De Nicola rushes to place his orders. He’s unruffled.
“Sometimes you get down to the wire,” he says.
The final selection: Salad with wine-soaked dried cranberries, carrots and strawberries with an apple-orange vinaigrette; lamb chops, herbed salmon fillet, couscous risotto and Mediterranean vegetables all topped with lemon garlic jus; and to finish, chocolate cappuccino mousse.
He orders 200 pounds of lamb and 125 pounds of salmon. He’ll need 150 pounds of couscous and seven gallons of sauce.
“It’s mind-boggling how much food we order sometimes, and that’s just one party,” he says.
includes 10 events for the individual colleges and the Association of Marquette University Women, and that’s on top of the usual catering requests. De Nicola hasn’t had a day off in weeks. It doesn’t help that his staff is down two people.
“I don’t know how Chef Bob keeps it all straight,” says Steve Kircher, Lunda Room chef. “He’s incredible.”
One by one, the events are ticked off the to-do list. The true test is tomorrow’s black-tie dinner. It’s 4:15 p.m. Friday, and the chop, chop, chop of a knife echoes down the dim service hallway. Pans of couscous are poured while the lamb marinates in the cooler.
De Nicola ordered the desserts from a Chicago patisserie. He hopes they arrive by 1 p.m. Saturday, but deliveries have been three hours late before. That can’t happen tomorrow. “I try to figure each day as it comes,” he says. “We try to work ahead.”
though you wouldn’t know that from the clock on the wall. It’s covered with a piece of paper that reads, “Hey you!! Quit looking at the clock and get to work!”
De Nicola’s assistant chefs, Fernando Espino, Dave Ehrke and Kircher, have cleaned up the kitchen from the morning’s events, so now they can start the night’s chores. But first, Father Wild is hosting five guests for lunch. Although University Catering often serves sophisticated fare when the president entertains, today it’s simple food and Father Wild’s favorites: tuna fish sandwiches and Oreo cookies.
De Nicola handles most of the cooking for the president’s office, and he delivers the food personally. “There’s no room for mistakes,” he says.
Meanwhile, De Nicola’s assistants prepare salads and load them on tall silver rolling carts, then they envelop the carts in plastic wrap.
Next, they season the salmon. The lamb and salmon won’t be cooked until about 45 minutes before dinner — “cooked to order,” De Nicola says, or at least as close as he can get when he’s feeding 400 people.
In between dinner preparations, they work on food for tomorrow’s celebrations.
“In this business, you have to have a lot of gears,” De Nicola says, as he carries a jug of olive oil back to the storage shelf. “Things happen, and you’ve got to be able to shift into 2 or 3 or 4.”
I is cooking in a giant steamer, sending up clouds of steam. The constant hum of the appliances is punctuated by the clattering of metal pots and pans — the cacophony of the kitchen.
The clock inches toward 5:30 p.m. Guests are already arriving for the 6 p.m. cocktail hour. The kitchen starts counting down.
“Now you’re going to see it get busy,” De Nicola says.
He turns to a tall rolling rack stacked with vegetable trays. He douses the veggies with olive oil and sprinkles them with seasonings.
He whistles as he plucks a box of cornstarch off the shelf and starts preparing the couscous risotto. The air is perfumed by the lemon-garlic jus simmering nearby.
He grabs hot pans of couscous with bare hands and jokes that he has “baby hands” now because of all the deskwork — menu planning, ordering inventory. De Nicola knows his share of chef’s tricks, such has balancing a hot pan on his fingernails or hooking a finger under each side and then alternating fingers so that he only burns one at a time. “You don’t have time to look for a hot pad,” he explains.
He stirs the couscous risotto with a giant paddle and adds sauce. It’s 6:35 p.m.
Soon, 21 other Sodexho cooks and chefs report for duty, the back-up is necessary to dish 400 plates on a deadline.
risotto is ready. De Nicola opens the oven and tests the lamb. “The lamb’s close, but I’m cooked,” he jokes about the steamy kitchen. He checks the lemon garlic jus, still simmering on the stove.
7:05 p.m. The staff forms an assembly line, and De Nicola darts around the room, figuring out the logistics. “There’s going to be somebody doing couscous, somebody doing lamb, somebody doing veggies, somebody doing sauce,” he says. He mutters numbers under his breath, calculating how many servings he needs to get from each pan.
7:15 p.m. The guests are seated in the candlelit ballroom. The sounds of Marquette’s Gospel Choir singing the invocation drift out the ballroom doors. Someone hushes the chattering kitchen and wait staff. It’s almost show time.
The ballroom doors swing open, and the choir sweeps by. An army of waiters stands poised with bread baskets, waiting for the command. The salads go out.
7:35 p.m. “OK, start pulling the plates. Fill the sauce guns,” De Nicola calls out, and everyone moves into position.
De Nicola issues last-minute instructions: “OK, person doing couscous, flat scoop, light, dead center. It can be a little mounded, but keep it a light scoop because I’ve got to get 70 out of this pan. Person doing salmon, put it right on top. You can’t spin the salmon. It has to be dead center.”
The next few minutes are a flurry of moving arms and sliding plates. De Nicola and Espino keep the supply lines full, shouting, “Hot lamb coming in! Couscous coming in!” as they dash back and forth. Finally, the crowd is served.
“15 minutes, 400 plates, done,” De Nicola says with a smile. All that’s left
of a nearly 14-hour day during which he cooked for more than 1,000 guests at events around campus. He munches on a lamb chop, resting for about a minute before an event organizer pops in and asks: “We’ve got staff to feed — about 40 people. Can you put something together?”
De Nicola glances at the empty pans around him. “Now?” he asks.
“In about half an hour?”
He nods. “We can do that.” And he gets back to work.