The dining room at Elder Hall, an all-freshman residence hall, has a particularly spirited energy to it. Students getting their first taste of independence visibly settle into new friend groups, often sitting in large groups and cramming into tables meant for half as many people. As they walk through the servery, several students chat with the staff, who cheerfully engage in easy conversation. Sometimes it’s a simple, “Hi, how are you?” but other times it’s a lively and personal exchange. Javier Nieves, a native Chicagoan and cook at Elder, always seems to be happily chatting with students. We caught up with him to get an insider’s look at the role he plays in the Elder kitchen.
How did you get your start in the food industry?
“I come from a huge family of cooks. Really everyone in my family loves food and cooking, so I was born into that environment. I actually have two uncles that worked up here for 10 years, so when I left my job in construction they helped point me in this direction.
How was the transition from the construction industry to the food industry?
Both jobs involve working with your hands and working hard, so I fit right in. I didn’t start as the lead cook, I was doing different stuff such as the salad bar. As I moved up I learned how to deal with the bigger stuff, like the pressure of having to put out high quality food for a lot of people all at once.
What’s you favorite dish to cook?
I really like cooking everything. It is all just working with my hands, so I like it all I guess. The first thing I learned to cook though was probably pasta, like fettuccine alfredo.
How does working at Elder compare to working at other dining halls?
I have actually worked at Elder ever since I started, but I have worked over at Hinman, Allison and Sargent before. I enjoy working in all the kitchens but I love talking with the students here at Elder. I ask them how their day is, they’re stressed, you know, so I do what I can to make them laugh or make them smile. They’re really good kids.
How do you see your future in the food industry?
I really enjoy working here, it’s a good environment. It’s been a great 9 years so far and I just hope there are many more years to come.