By William Thompson
Tony Allen, general manager of Sodexho food service operations at the Eastern New Mexico University cafeteria, brings decades of gourmet experience to the job. Allen said his two most influential teachers along the way were his father and a European chef, Egon Petersen.
“Egon was the chef at the Regency Hotel in Denver,” Allen said. “When I got out of the Army, I was a grill cook at the hotel. I told Egon that I was going back to college, and he asked me why, because he thought I had a future in cooking. He took me under his wing. My first cooking job (as a teenager) was at Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House in Gainesville, Fla. My father, who was also a chef, began to teach me (at the age of 15) how to make gravies. Egon later taught me French cooking.”
Allen said Petersen was a harsh taskmaster.
“Chefs back in those days (the 1960’s) thought they were God of the kitchen. If I had decorated a salmon and Egon didn’t like the decoration he would scrape off all the work I had done and make me start all over,” Allen said. “I told myself back then that I would never discipline employees like Egon did.”
Allen said he is “everybody’s friend” when he walks around the ENMU cafeteria kitchen these days.
“I never discipline employees on the floor in front of other people,” he said. “Any discipline is done behind closed doors. Happy workers produce a good product consistently. If you have high employee turnover, quality suffers.”
Allen said he puts in 60-70 hours per week in the cafeteria. ENMU students have noticed a more festive atmosphere in their cafeteria as Allen has instituted special menus each month that coincide with festive events like Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.
Already, hot wings and giant pretzels are planned for a special March Madness NCAA basketball tournament menu. He creates ice sculptures and large decorative displays such as a tall pineapple palm tree to highlight fruit instead of just serving fruit on a tray.
“Anytime you’re doing a buffet, people eat with their eyes first,” he said. “If they can look at it and like it, the battle is won.”
Improvement on cafeteria decor has gone hand in hand with making sure basic food items that people like remain on the menu.
“Students still like “down home” foods like macaroni and cheese, chicken fried steak and pork chops,” Allen said.
Allen said friends of his in the past, who knew he was a chef acquainted with gourmet cooking from around the world, often invited him to dinners in which they tried to impress him.
“If you are cooking for me, don’t try to ‘foo-foo’ me,” he said. “Give me what you eat. If you like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn then give me fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn.”
Allen said he has received numerous compliments from ENMU students on improved food quality and decor since he took over as general manager of the cafeteria. He said food quality began improving after Scott Majestic took over chef duties last year, and now with the added decorative touches, the cafeteria is closer to Allen’s vision of the ideal cafeteria.
Majestic said Allen, who was once named Texas Chef of the Year and took classes at the Culinary Institute of America, has been teaching him some new things.
“He’s taught me ice sculpting,” Majestic said. “He’s been someone to lean on. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s always willing to jump in and lend a hand. The food here beats any cafeteria I’ve ever eaten at.”
For Allen, one key to pleasing diners is to get feedback.
“I talk to students everyday,” Allen said. “Yesterday, four or five young ladies said they like the cheesecake and spaghetti, but they hadn’t seen them on the menu in awhile. The next day they got their cheesecake and their spaghetti.”
ENMU sophomore Suzanne Cox eats in the cafeteria occasionally. She said Allen has come up to her and asked her what he could do to improve the menu.
“My mom and I ate in the cafeteria yesterday. My mom went back four or five times to the different stations. The cooks do your hamburger exactly the way you want it.”
Freshman Clarissa Robertson rated the cafeteria “eight” out of 10.
“All and all I can’t complain,” Robertson said.
Allen unwinds from his job by playing golf and painting.
“I paint a lot of still life and water,” Allen said. “Water, I find to be peaceful. There are not many people in my paintings because people create distractions in the serenity I’m looking for.”
Just about any chef you ask has a brown gravy recipe. Allen was happy to share his brown gravy recipe with Portales residents. He said to leave the cornstarch in the cupboard for this recipe:
“Make a beef stock first from a beef base,” Allen said. “Set the stock aside and let it cool. Brown some flour in butter. Combine the stock with chopped carrots, onions and celery. Cook it and reduce it down. Add tomato puree or paprika and reduce that down. Then strain the gravy. Add salt and pepper. The gravy is good for mashed potatoes, meat loaf or a mushroom sauce. This sauce is basic because you can go anywhere with it.”
If you want to ask Allen about the recipe you can catch him in the ENMU cafeteria’s dining room which is open to the public.