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UA Executive Chef Brings Expansive Knowledge, Expertise
Kevin Lau, the UA's executive chef, arrived at the University over the summer having worked at country clubs and resorts across the U.S.
It's 10:53 a.m., and the University of Arizona's production kitchen is so active it sounds like an engine set to a steady rev.
In the basement of the Student Union Memorial Center, UA cooks are bustling around slicing freshly baked bread loafs, testing measurements, chopping vegetables, preparing meats for cooking and double and triple checking catering orders as phones ring intermittently and staff members move in and out of the space.
Soon arrives Kevin Lau, executive chef for the UA's student food service, who already had been working nearly five hours.
Just three months on the job, Lau was charged with overseeing the production kitchen, sanitation and the warehouse and helping to introduce new restaurant concepts such as Pangea, which opened at the start of the semester. On this particular morning, Lau had just run a taste test and a test run on the new restaurant.
It is a hefty lot to manage, but with his extensive experience working for country clubs and resorts around the country, and having helped launch numerous restaurants in the past, the classically trained Lau said he was more than ready for the UA job.
"The work is so demanding," said Lau, who has worked as a cook and chef for the likes of the Walt Disney's World Village and Wyndham Hotel at Sea World. He has prepared meals for parties in the hundreds, celebrities and former U.S. presidents. "It's also a lifestyle that very few people get to experience."
And he arrives at the UA at an opportune time.
In recent years, Dining Services has worked to rebrand its image, moving away from the traditional and sometimes gritty cafeteria-style that characterized many college and university dining experiences. The push now is more holistic: more sustainable, locally harvested foods that meet the shifting moods and lifestyle choices of today's students.
"Everybody's a foodie these days," said Joel Hauff, interim director for the Arizona Student Unions, noting the proliferation of food-related magazines, blogs, shows and even network stations.
"People who never understood anything about food can now talk about cooking styles, cuts of vegetables, different layering of flavors and dishes," Hauff said. We are simply responding to the expectations of our customers."
Hauff said that during interviews, chefs were required to produce a multi-course meal. Most other chefs went to work alone, but what Lau did was completely unexpected.
"Kevin was different. He utilized our existing staff to create his meal. We realized right away that he is a teacher," Hauff said. "To us, that was very appealing. We needed to find someone with the right mindset to elevate food services at the UA and to help our existing staff to become even better."
How Lau arrived here is a long, complicated journey.
Lau's father passed away when he was 16. His plans to pursue higher education were shuttered. One of five children, he decided to begin working so he could support his mother and help cover the family's expenses: the mortgage, food costs and other bills.
Years later, it was suggested to Lau that he should consider an apprenticeship, and, at age 20, he was accepted into a program at the elite Hotel Hershey. There, Lau trained and worked, often for 70 hours each week.
"There were days we would work 23 hours, then at $3.10 an hour. I have never worked so hard than I did then," said Lau, who was born and raised in Hawaii.
Today, Lau views his extensive, challenging training and discipline as hugely beneficial.
"It helped me to understand that it was the hardest job I would ever have," Lau said. But, today, he feels a different type of challenge.
"It's the challenge of not failing. You don't want to fail, so having something that is difficult makes you want to achieve it," Lau said. "That's what drives me. And I also feel a sense of loyalty to the people who chose me to be here."
Hauff said Lau is the "right person for the job" because of his experience and his mindset.
"One of the attractive things about Kevin is that he comes from hotels, private clubs, large restaurant groups – places where there was a need for continued innovation," Hauff said. "You wouldn't be able to do the same things the same way for many consecutive years and expect your catering business or restaurant to be successful over time."
Hauff said the same is true for dining services in a university environment where demands shift with seasons as they do with generations. Also, given that the University has over the years provided more social hubs beyond the Student Union – like more expansive programming and spaces at the UA Libraries, Campus Recreation Center and in residence halls – Hauff said the Student Unions also has had to shift.
"There are consumer expectations, and people want to know they are getting a quality product at a fair price on a consistent basis," Hauff said.
"If you look at the world immediately around us, the food landscape is changing. We have to respond to that," he added. "So we are ultimately raising the bar for our program in order to improve quality and consistency."