Tiffany Wallace is the kind of chef even Gordon Ramsey would find endearing. You’ve probably seen her around. She’s a staple in nuCuisine’s Foster-Walker West Dining Hall. With her purple-dye tipped hair, default motherly demeanor and slight Southern drawl characteristic of a Chicago-native who spent her summers visiting her grandparents in Mississippi, she’s not one to be missed.
As I talk to her after-hours in the empty dining hall one Thursday night, she pulls out her phone excitedly to show me a video from a couple months ago when four football players serenaded her in front of a dining hall full of people. After losing in the second round in the Battle of the Chefs tournament, a somewhat bummed Tiffany posted a short status on her Facebook page, where she’s friends with Northwestern students aplenty. The football players caught wind of the loss and decided to cheer Tiffany up with a heartfelt — albeit slightly off-key — rendition of Boys II Men’s “If I Ever Fall in Love Again.”
“They came in with their shades on and they just started singing in the middle of the dining hall. It was so funny,” Tiffany says with a barely contained laugh. “But at the same time, it was kind of …you know, I wanted to go in the back and cry a little bit. It’s the small things that people notice about you. So that brightened me up because I was kind of down.”
When I ask her about her favorite part of the job, she says it’s the students, who she affectionately refers to as “the kids.” When I ask her about why she enjoys cooking, she says it’s getting to see other people’s reactions when they taste her creations. And when I ask her about what keeps her going on her worst days, she says it’s surrounding herself with people who are going to embrace her.
Her whole world seems to revolve around other people.
“All of us here, we only eat Halal meat … and she’s been more than accommodating,” Weinberg sophomore Aziz Asim says. “She’ll go out of her way to make us stuff, especially if she’s running low on something. Like, if there’s just chicken left, she’ll do something special with it just because she knows our food options are pretty limited compared to other people. So that says a lot about her.”
Before nuCuisine, Tiffany previously worked as a chef at the House of Blues Chicago, ESPN Zone and Blu 47. She has an older sister and two daughters, who are 5 and 16-years-old. She says her youngest daughter likes to cook, but her “big girl is lazy.” Her favorite foods are tacos. She is a three-time winner of the Students Choice Favorite Staff Member award. And eventually, she wants to open a restaurant staffed with plus-sized waiters and chefs.
Read excerpts from her interview below.
So, how did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
“It was my major in high school. We used to have different competitions in school, and when I won the first competition, it was like ‘wow, they like my food!’ So I began to have a passion for it, creating different things. To see people’s reactions to things I just cooked up off of the top of my head, that’s what pushes me.”
What are your favorite things to cook?
“I don’t really have a favorite because I enjoy doing everything. On the side, I do a lot of catering events though, so I can say I really like to deal with a lot of seafood, maybe with a little bit of an Italian twist.”
What do you usually do when you come in for work?
“I feel like I’m the life of the unit. Normally, everyone’s doing their thing and I have to come in and be a little loud, crack a few jokes, linger around. Some people may come to me with a couple of problems. In other words, I’d say I’m the mouth of the unit.”
Favorite part of the job?
“The kids. Y’all brighten my day. ‘Cause sometimes, some come in a little sad, so I’ll just say something or crack a joke to lift their spirits up. Some people go through a lot of personal things. And I’m thankful that a lot of you guys feel comfortable enough with me to tell me personal things. It’s like I’m a big sister slash auntie slash you know, I’m a little bit of everything around here.”
So [Foster-Walker West] is very much like a living room. Is Late Night always like this?
“This is the kick-it place. I have some people come in and sing. I have some groups come in and dance. Like, ‘Look. Ms. Tiff is gonna cook us up some stuff and we’re gonna kick it.’ Late Night is fun. To me, it’s a place where [the students] can come in and relax. And we can talk about sports, talk about boys, talk about girlfriends, whatever. If you come in here, you probably wouldn’t even be able to do your work. You’d be like, ‘Is this really happening in the dining hall?
Where do you see yourself going forward?
“I want to open up a restaurant. I want it to be a supper lounge where it would be fine dining Monday through Thursday and a club scene Friday’s and Saturdays. I said that I was going to name it ‘Plus’, because whenever you go to a nice restaurant or a nice lounge, you always see the petite, prissy little people. So I’m hiring plus-size people … I’m gonna be the first one to do it.”
On trying out for MasterChef or Hell’s Kitchen
“I say I want to get on there one day. I’d just be so scared. I don’t know why though. [Gordon Ramsey] would probably love me. He’d probably be like “Get out of my kitchen! No. Come back, come back!'”