The chefs: Juan Casco and John Moloney, IMU Food Services
Once a month, Juan Casco and John Moloney offer University of Iowa faculty and staff members, as well as students, the chance to take their taste buds on a world tour, all from the comforts of the Iowa Memorial Union. Moloney and Casco, chefs in IMU Food Services, are the people behind the University’s Lunch with the Chefs events—luncheons that incorporate geographical or cultural themes into the menu. As they prepare for this month’s Back Forty Texas BBQ (to be held Jan. 25), Casco and Moloney tell fyi about the Elvis Lunch with the Chefs, their kitchen habits at home, and what to do when equipment fails and 1,200 people want their steak.
What goes into planning Lunch with the Chefs?
Juan Casco: Usually we get a committee of people together. We bring ideas about foods from different regions that interest us, and we look at what’s worked over the last couple of years. The ideas are divided between the chefs, who then write the menus.
John Moloney: Basically when I write a menu, I go online, read a little bit about the region, history, what foods they’re serving, what ingredients they work with, read web sites for different recipes, and make something from there.
As a lifelong Midwesterner, I’ve grown up expecting meat and potatoes on my plate, and I know folks who find lasagna “exotic.” Do you view Lunch with the Chefs as a way to add sophistication to people’s palates? Or perhaps a way for you to explore new foods?
JC: With Lunch with the Chefs, I like to take the opportunity to explore new things, make stuff that I’ve never tasted or never worked with.
JM: I like to increase public awareness of what foods are out there. Our whole goal is to give the University community some interesting meals for a relatively inexpensive price.
Some of the cuisines that use chilies, or other spicy foods, we find we need to—
JC: Tone it down!
JM: —yeah, sometimes quite a bit from the initial recipe, because it would be too hot or too spicy. You try not to alter it too much, but you have to cater to your clientele, what they expect and like. If you do a Vietnamese menu, and it comes out with all chilies and peppers, it could be a little overbearing for many of our patrons, who have more plain taste buds.
What are the popular themes?
JM: The Italian ones tend to go fairly well, and our most recent one was a hit—it was Floridian foods, Cuban foods.
JC: Our Mardi Gras one went pretty well, and we’ve done an Elvis one.
What does one serve for an Elvis-themed event?
JC: That would be the grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich.
JM: We also did a Three Stooges theme, where we served hash—it wasn’t one of the more popular crowd draws. We did have the television show playing in the background. It was fun…and no one got hurt.
How did you get into this line of work?
JM: When I got out of high school, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I had an opportunity to work in a restaurant. I found it interesting and entertaining.
JC: I tried accounting for a while—that wasn’t for me. The school I attended had a culinary arts program, so I talked to them. I had been cooking at home since I was 10 years old, so I gave it a try and stuck with it.
What’s your favorite dish to make?
JM: So many things are fun to work with, to experiment and play with, so it’s hard to say I have one dish that I like to make.
JC: As John said, there are so many options, but I really enjoy making various Mexican foods. Tamales and such.
When you go home after work, do you head to the kitchen, or are you more likely to kick up your feet and order in?
JM: I pretty much like to eat anything I work with, but it’s always nice to eat something that you didn’t have to cook. I do a fair share of cooking at home, but we tend to eat out when we’re busy running hither and yon. We hit the sushi bar, something the whole family enjoys, and I like a good burger every now and again.
JC: I work the later shift here, so I don’t do so much cooking after work, but I do try to cook something a little nicer on my days off.
JM: Instead of bringing home pizzas from the take-n-bake places.
That sounds like the extent of my kitchen expertise. What are your duties, both day-to-day and special events?
JM: I start around 6 a.m. I supervise the morning staff, and get things organized: order the food, work out the prep lists, cut meats, whatever needs to be taken care of. On any given day, we have anywhere from five to 30 parties going out of the kitchen, and catering events ranging from as small as two people to as large as 500—the average size ranges from 150 to 250 people. Some nights we might have three or four of those going out at the same time. Some are buffet work, while some are plated up.
JC: I come in mid-morning, do whatever lists or orders are needed, and then I help John with supervisory details. We have 12 full-time staff, and up to 35 part-time student employees who work roughly 10 to 18 hours a week. After John leaves, I take care of the nighttime caterings, making sure that’s all prepped and ready to go.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had to deal with in the kitchen?
JM: We did a big event in Carver-Hawkeye Arena for about 1,200 people. It was close to our entrée service time, when we had an equipment outage. If we were to load up, go back to the IMU, get ovens going, get things cooked, and return, we were looking at 45 to 90 minutes to take care of some 900 steaks. We found a small kitchen in Carver-Hawkeye with a standard kitchen stove. We threw sheet pans on top of the burners. We were pan-searing steaks; we had them in the oven. We were putting them in this dinky microwave two at a time, rotating them around. It was quite the rush, and we pulled it off without a glitch. Nobody knew there was a problem.
What do you like to do outside the kitchen?
JM: I hang with my kids a lot; they’re at busy ages. I play racquetball while my son is at gymnastics. I coach my younger daughter’s hockey team. My oldest does ballet. I play hockey, at Coral Ridge Ice Arena.
JC: I play softball with some of the kitchen staff during the spring and summer, and I like to play sports, action, and fighting games for the PlayStation 2.
Let’s talk favorites. Book?
JM: I just finished reading Eragon with my son. I personally like reading sci-fi.
JC: The Lord of the Rings. And I read a lot of sports magazines.
JC: I can tolerate just about anything but country. I listen to classic rock, current rock, and a lot of Motown stuff.
JM: I like jazz. Having teenage daughters, I listen to pop stations, with the same songs every minute and a half—
You’re not going to pawn that off on your daughters, are you?
JC: I’ve been in his car before, that’s the station that was playing.
JM: I like classical music and pop along with jazz.
JC: Boy, that’s tough. Any of the mob movies: The Godfather, Scarface, GoodFellas.
JM: Action movies. Lilo & Stitch for the kids.
JM: You buyin’? Vodka on the rocks, usually Absolut. Scotch is good. Beers, Coronas and Guinness—quite a contrast in flavors. I drink wine; wine goes hand in hand with the work we do.
JC: Better stop now, John, before people get the wrong idea about you.
Indeed, this might put me over my word limit.
JC: I too like Absolut vodka. Tequilas, dark rums, and if I go to beer, I do Coronas.
by Christopher Clair