Russell Thomas recalls a night at Lumière, an award-winning Boston restaurant he worked at in the middle of his career.
His colleagues had cold-called Julia Child, who had her phone number listed in the Cambridge, Massachusetts phone book.
“They called her just to show me,” Thomas said. “She picked up and they were like, ‘Hey Julia what’s going on, how’s things?’ And she was just chatting with them about food.”
Thomas would go on to cook for Child often.
“I met her, she signed my cookbooks, and I would sit at the table and chat with her every now and then,” Thomas said.
From working in restaurants across the country to owning a reputable catering business, Cal Poly Catering Sous Chef Russell Thomas has no shortage of hands-on culinary experience.
Many chefs at Cal Poly Campus Dining and Catering have led extensive culinary careers before securing a Cal Poly position.
“We do everything from mundane buffets for 25 people to plated dinners for 500 people — there’s no two days that are the same here.”
Originally from Tulare, Thomas began his career in San Francisco waiting tables at Planet Hollywood. He attended the San Francisco City College Culinary program and worked for Elka Gilmore, a James Beard Foundation Award nominee, at her restaurant Elka.
After working in restaurants and coffee shops around San Francisco, Thomas moved to Boston to cook alongside another award-winning chef, Michael Leviton, in his French restaurant Lumière. Lumière was known as one of the best restaurants in Boston.
Thomas then began working at Le Méridien Hotel, which piqued his interest in pastries.
“I was drawn to busy restaurants and really good chefs,” Thomas said.
Looking to settle down on the Central Coast, Thomas relocated to Arroyo Grande and began establishing roots in San Luis Obispo County’s culinary scene. He earned a natural resource management degree from Cal Poly with a minor in event planning and worked at NoVo and the Madonna Inn. He started his own catering business, Two Cooks Catering, which lasted for 10 years before he came to work at Cal Poly.
After working for Cal Poly Catering for one year, Thomas said he has had a positive experience so far.
“In the catering section you have to be the most creative because there’s a lot of menu writing and menu development,” Thomas said.
How does a chef once cooking for Julia Child and owning his own business find himself landing a position at Cal Poly?
According to Cynthia Stocker, Cal Poly’s Operations Manager of Catering, Concessions, and Food Trucks, the answer is simple: stability.
“As you get older, you want a more secure position,” Thomas said. “I ended up at [Cal] Poly to get those killer benefits.”
Running a catering business could amount to 80 to 100 hours a week, Stocker said. Cal Poly Catering tries to stick to 40 hours a week.
“Russ is enjoying coming in, and at the end of the day, he’s done,” Stocker said. “There’s satisfaction in that.”
Although a segment of Campus Dining, Cal Poly Catering provides a non-traditional culinary setting, according to Stocker. As a result, it can be a much more interesting place to work at than most people believe.
“We do everything from mundane buffets for 25 people to plated dinners for 500 people — there’s no two days that are the same here,” Stocker said.
Cal Poly Campus Dining and Catering often hires chefs with careers and skill sets similar to Thomas.
“In my short time here on campus, I do see that most chefs have very vast and extensive backgrounds,” Campus Dining Executive Chef Rensford Abrigo said.
Abrigo himself cooked for many high-end Las Vegas restaurants and opened his own award-winning steakhouse. Another Campus Dining chef, Aaron Dixon, worked at Le Bec-Fin, a French restaurant in Philadelphia, which earned a five star rating from Forbes Travel Guide and was once named one of the best restaurants in the country.
Most chefs come from catering and restaurant backgrounds. Many have been to culinary school and worked with other well-known chefs, but an extensive fine dining career is not always a requirement.
“If you have great culinary skills, fantastic — if you don’t but you’ve got a passion for food, then everything is trainable,” Stocker said.
Aside from a great sense of humor, flexibility, and open mindedness, Cal Poly Catering does not require professional culinary training. However, a background like Thomas’ does help to make a difference in Campus Dining.
“It truly helps to make the overall experience that most students have to be a great one,” Abrigo said. “The chefs are able to call upon their vast knowledge and experience to make so many different dishes and create new and fun menus.”
As a person who generally keeps to himself, Thomas said his biggest takeaway from his culinary career is simply “the satisfaction of cooking — making sure that food comes out tasty and looking good.”
“Everyday I pat myself that we got him — he’s been an incredible addition to our team,” Stocker said of Thomas. “On a day-to-day basis, he’s game for whatever comes our way.”
In addition to Cal Poly Catering, Thomas is taking construction material classes at Cuesta College and learning how to weld.
“I’m just putting my life into a good spot where my family and I can retire comfortably on the Central Coast,” Thomas said. “If your family is happy, you’re happy.”