Critic-Turned-Cook Finds Her Dream Job at a Frat House Kitchen

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Darlene Barnes and Alpha Sigma Phi President Alexander Badley. [Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

After working in 10 kitchens since the beginning of my culinary journey from pen to pan, I think I've finally found my niche in a totally surprising place. My latest kitchen gig—cook's assistant at University of Washington's Alpha Sigma Phi—just might be my dream job.

I didn't know there could be flat-out fantastic food served in a frat house, but the 70 members of this old school spot are discriminating diners-in-training thanks to the efforts of their clever cook, Darlene Barnes. I met Darlene this summer at the Quillisascut Farm School for the Domestic Arts and was fascinated by her unusual job, which she writes about on her sassy blog, Fraternity Kitchen.

Back when we were plucking chickens and milking goats at the Farm School, I asked if I could come and just hang out at the house. After the number of brothers grew—the pledges probably heard about her fine food—she asked her boss for some help and I begged: "Pick me! Pick me!"

From the small, well-organized Fraternity Kitchen, she nags purveyors to buy local, has sussed out a source for organic produce, plans imaginative menus, and does the equivalent of 700 covers during her five-day week. She used to this all on her own, but now gets a little help from me. I just finished week three on the payroll and I've loved every minute.

Here's what makes it so much fun: I get to do something different every day. Last week, among other things, I made curry paste for chicken biryani and put together a spicy mango salad. I've put together an orange balsamic vinaigrette with fresh squeezed juice. I've prepped lemongrass and ginger for a Thai-style halibut and julienned Italian sweet peppers to be sautéed and served with sausage and polenta. Mac and cheese? We don't need no stinking mac and cheese!

After a couple guys asked for Vietnamese noodle soup, Darlene recently made pho from scratch for lunch. She has introduced the house to the joys of cheese grits and collard greens, jambalaya and Syrah-braised lamb. Her incredible cream of tomato soup with tasso made me long for the South. She's originally from Louisiana, so it's no surprise she isn't shy about seasoning.

There always seems to be a steady stream of guys coming into her kitchen asking, "What's for dinner? What smells so good? Can we please get some more?" Maybe I'm coming down with a case of Husky Fever, but I cannot help bragging: We're #1! Really. If there's another fraternity out there that thinks it has more delicious food, I want to hear all about it.

I get the feeling Darlene's kitchen just might be on the forefront of a new movement to bring real food back to campus. I'm thrilled to play a teensy part in that tasty revolution.

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been working in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com and recently launched a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.

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