Dean Carlson, the food and beverage director at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts for nearly a decade, found his "inner foodie" almost by accident.
Or maybe it was on-the-vine intervention.
Either way, Carlson looks at the culinary arts differently than he did when he took a fast-food restaurant job after high school many years ago.
"It's been a natural progression and my interest has grown the longer I've been in it," he said. "My thirst for knowledge has grown over the years."
What he has discovered is that just about any food can taste good - as long as it is prepared with fresh ingredients.
"Almost everything we serve is fresh and made with non-processed products," he said of his dishes at Krannert Center's Intermezzo café. "You can really taste the difference."
In addition to the café, he manages the Stage 5 Bar in the lobby and the center's catering service.
Carlson's early fast-food experience led to a restaurant job for a national hotel chain, where he eventually would become a food buyer and then purchasing director.
His tastes have progressed along with his knowledge of food, and he relishes trying new and unusual things. His dedication to fresh food extends to his home table as well.
"There used to be a lot of things I didn't like or didn't care to try," he said. "Now I'll try anything and will try to cook just about anything. Sometimes my wife (Cyndi) looks at me (over dinner at home) and says, 'There's no way I'm eating that.' But she's still amazed at what I can put together from almost nothing."
Carlson has worked at Krannert Center for 12 years, starting as the assistant catering manager and moving up to the manager's position in three years.
"This job goes from creating the daily specials to event planning for catering," he said. "We also have a lot of private receptions and the bulk of our catering is taking care of our artists' needs."
He said he once spent several days looking for a specific brand of honey that had been requested by an artist.
"We looked everywhere," finally finding the brand in a Charleston, Ill., store.
"Usually the artists are understanding, but some of them can be diva-esque," he said, "I'm not naming names, but we work hard to try and keep everybody happy."
Carlson regularly receives gastronomical inspiration from the Food Network on television.
"I'll see something and say, 'I'm going to try that,' " he said.
His favorite celebrity chef is Andrew Zimmern, mostly because of his propensity for eating "bizarre foods" prepared from around the world.
For Intermezzo, Carlson prepares some of the food, including cured and smoked meats, at his home. He said he dreams of having a complete kitchen at Krannert Center with more equipment, but his budget won't cover it.
"I keep hoping there's a foodie out there who might donate enough for an upgrade someday," he said. "We need kitchen equipment and I'd love to have a smoke shack on the premises. Can you imagine how good that would smell?"
The menu at Intermezzo offers a wide variety of choices. The café has a full selection for breakfast, lunch (and dinner on show nights), and includes everything from all-beef burgers to vegetarian fare. Carlson said he makes an extra effort to use locally grown food and tries to please the full array of customer tastes.
The café uses corn-based, recyclable packaging and utensils, and has earned certification for its sustainable efforts from the Illinois Green Business Association.
He said the food is made with fresh ingredients, meaning it isn't processed and doesn't have added preservatives.
"We're very conscious that everything we do here is not only high quality, but sustainable," he said.
Carlson says the café is capable of serving 300 people over the lunch break, without making any of them late in returning to work. Overall, Carlson oversees three fulltime civil service employees and about 30 students who help at various times of the day.
"Most of our food is out that window in 90 seconds or less," he said.
The most popular lunchtime fare includes homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese, and the freshly prepared bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
When he's not cooking or thinking about food, which is seldom, Carlson said he likes riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He is a 30-year member of the Stone Cold Motorcycle Club, which raises money for local charitable activities.
Carlson said he's tried to pass on his love for cooking to his 14-year-old daughter and his wife's two older children, but hasn't had much success.
"I've attempted to teach them to cook but they've got other interests," he said.