Debbie Fajerski of Baldwin Borough always enjoyed cooking, and worked for eight years in restaurant management, but she never thought she would be cooking two meals a day, five days a week for more than 40 weeks a year -- for 50 young adults.
That is the routine she has been following for more than 12 years as a cook for a local fraternity and sorority.
"I used to work at the Baum Vivant Restaurant in Shadyside and one day while I was in the process of opening the dining room there was a knock on the door," she recounts. "It was a young man with orange hair looking for a job as a waiter. My first thought was not to even interview him, but he said he was from Carnegie Mellon, so I figured he must be pretty smart. He was, and after a few minutes I decided to hire him. He turned out to be one of the greatest workers we had. As I got to know him, I learned he was in a fraternity and that the fraternity had a cook who prepared all of [the members'] meals. I told him that sounded like a great job. After a few months he told me they had lost their cook and wondered if I would want the job. And, as they say, the rest is history."
In 2002 she started her new job and the cooks for the other fraternities were betting she wouldn't last.
"What they didn't know was that I loved the job," she said. "I outlasted all of them."
She worked for the fraternity for 10 years and when the fraternity moved out of the Greek Quad, she went to work for the 50-member Alpha Chi Omega sorority. She prepares its lunches and dinners Monday through Friday beginning in August and concluding when classes end in May.
She makes a weekly menu based on the young women's favorite foods and different dietary needs. Some of the girls are vegetarians, while others have allergies.
"I vary the meals using a three-week cycle. I try to change the menu every week for three weeks, then I begin again. We always have healthy foods. And we have every allergy known to mankind. So I have learned to cook with that in mind. Some of the girls have to follow a gluten-free diet. I have a girl with celiac disease -- now that's a tough one. Her food can't come in contact with foods that might be harmful to her. I don't use flour products or wheat -- thank goodness the markets are becoming more accommodating. I buy gluten-free pasta, bread and cornstarch instead of flour. I read labels to make sure there aren't any ingredients in the product that the girls can't have. We also have peanut allergies, so I don't use peanut butter or any peanut products. I have a girl who follows a kosher diet and I follow the tradition of kosher cooking for her. Plus I have 14 girls who are vegetarian."
Although she creates the menu, the girls often make suggestions, mostly for healthy foods but occasionally for something to satisfy that sweet tooth.
"They always want fresh vegetables and fruits, which I have all the time. One day they came to me and said they didn't think they were getting enough protein and asked if I would incorporate more beans into the menus. So I made stuffed tomatoes with spices, butter beans and Israeli couscous. That was their main part of the meal along with the chicken and roasted potatoes and green beans I made for the other girls who aren't vegetarian."
Of course, the real measure of anyone's cooking skills is whether or not the food tastes good. "I give Debbie five stars -- she's excellent," said Charlotte Darby, a sophomore and the sorority's vice president of facility operations.
To prepare for the day she arrives around 8:30 a.m. and serves lunch at 11 a.m. Then she begins preparing dinner, which she tries to have ready by 4:30 p.m.
She prepares a huge salad bar every day with all the fresh greens that you would find at any restaurant salad bar.
"I also make hamburgers, grilled chicken and veggie burgers, soups and sometimes french fries. The girls have a sweet tooth so one day I made s'mores brownies. We don't have desserts every day because I follow a budget for them from their chapter and I stay within the budget." The sorority members, and one non-sorority member who joined the food plan, chip in to pay $900 per semester.
Cooking for 50 every day requires organizational skills and a little bit of help.
"I have a routine. I plan the meals ahead of time and because I know the girls' likes and dislikes, it makes ordering the food a lot easier. The food is delivered every Tuesday and Friday. I should mention that sometimes we have specials. For instance, I have a day called 'Middle School Monday' when I make a wonderful tomato bisque with grilled cheese sandwiches. Then there's 'Taco Tuesday' with chicken and ground meat and lots of different veggies. Fortunately I have a commercial kitchen with a large steam table. The kitchen is large enough to allow me to separate the foods for the girls with allergies. I put their food in a special area in the kitchen."
The help comes from a sales rep who has been her food purveyor since her first day on the job. In addition to helping her develop an efficient ordering system, he untangled the intricacies of cooking for 50 girls with 50 individual tastes.
"The kids are under so much pressure ... so I try to make their life a little easier by serving their meals on a regular schedule. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. but there will be girls who come in at 3 or 3:30 p.m. who haven't had a chance to eat so I save lunch for them."
For breakfast the girls are on their own, almost. They have a kitchenette with a stove and refrigerator so they can prepare their breakfasts with food purchased by Ms. Fajerski. The girls are not permitted to cook in the main kitchen because you have to be certified. Ms. Fajenski is certified every three years through the Allegheny County Health Department Food Safety Program.
As she talked about her daily duties and all the work and planning that goes with the job, she smiled and said, "I love it -- I really do."
This is the soup that Debbie Fajerski serves on "Middle School Mondays." She triples the recipe when she's making it for the sorority. Although she uses bottled garlic, it's OK to use fresh if that's your preference and that goes for the dill, as well. The soup is gluten-free. Serve with your favorite grilled cheese sandwich.
1/4 cup minced garlic in water, drained
1/4 cup finely chopped sweet onions
1/4 cup honey
3 quarts of tomato juice
1/8 cup of dried dill
1 quart of heavy cream
Saute minced garlic and onions with the honey until onions are soft. Add tomato juice and dill and bring to a boil. Add heavy cream and bring to a boil again. Turn heat down and simmer for 1 hour. Strain soup to discard the garlic and onions.
Yields approximately 1 gallon.
-- Debbie Fajerski
Arlene Burnett: email@example.com.