Curtis Nesler spends his workday in a powdered sugar haze, battered about by the fickle winds of culinary inspiration and the relentless pursuit of perfect pastry presentation.
The fact he gets to do it at the UI for University Housing is just icing on the cake.
"The way I've always looked at it, I get paid to play with my food," said the pastry chef, who has worked at the UI for nearly three years. "It's always been a chance for me to play and be creative."
Nesler started playing with his food as an infant, but found he actually had a real talent for it by the time he hit his teenage years.
His family - which includes five siblings, three of them UI graduates - lived on a farm in Burlington, a small community north of Champaign, and the menu was decidedly meat and potatoes.
"Mom was always baking or cooking or doing something in the kitchen," he said.
As a maturing chef he kept experimenting and branching out from the roots of his Midwestern appetite. Before long, he decided on a course that led him to enroll at the New York-based Culinary Institute of America and earn a two-year certification.
It didn't take long for Nesler to realize his calling lay in the gooey centers of to-die-for desserts.
But it wasn't the sweetness that swayed him; it was the order and elegance of the pastry and the "oohs" and "ahs" it elicits among partygoers.
It was an opportunity to treat food as art, and like the pastries that Nesler envisioned, one that was too good to resist.
"People eat with their eyes first," he said. "That philosophy works particularly well with the desserts."
Nesler said his earliest confectionary memory goes back to a book he read as a child, "Charlie and Chocolate the Factory."
"I was always fascinated by that story," he said. "Like the main character, Willy Wonka, I truly enjoy doing what I do."
Nesler's culinary credentials led to a 10-plus year career with the Hyatt Hotel chain, which included a stint in facilities in Texas and the Denver suburbs, where he served in various kitchen positions. Before returning to Illinois he also briefly worked at a Whole Foods Market "bake house" that supplied the region its daily bread and pastries.
"That was one of the best experiences of my life," he said of the bake-house work. "That's where I learned about bread. It can be so complicated. It's like a chemistry project. I don't think you want me to get into all the details, but I can make one mean sourdough."
Nesler returned to Central Illinois to be closer to his ailing mother and was surprised when a brother, who works for University Catering, told him there was a pastry chef opening.
He is enjoying the experience, especially working alongside such experienced culinary professionals.
"There is a lot of knowledge here," he said. "We all sort of feed off each other and are able to work through anything."
Nesler said he enjoys the variety of work, which can mean a catering assignment at Assembly Hall one day or a specialty order for an intimate party the next. He said a good deal of time is spent ensuring production schedules are accurate and workable.
"We do our best to do what's right," he said. "We've been given the chance to be very, very creative and that makes it a learning experience every day."
He said he enjoys the assignments where he gets to add his own special flourish, but that everyone in the kitchen takes on even the most basic tasks with professional precision. Staff members even prepare restricted-diet servings for those with allergies.
"We try to keep up with everybody and make everybody happy," he said. "If something isn't as it we think it should be, we will not send it out."
And that goes for presentation as well as taste.
"We don't like sending out something that doesn't look good," he said. "If it takes an extra step or we have to put a little extra 'polish' on it, then we'll do it. Everyone here has an immense amount of pride in their work."
When it comes to off-time, Nesler doesn't stray far from the ingredients that make up his workday.
He is a collector of cookie jars and cookbooks, and, yes, he enjoys visiting restaurants.
He insists he's not a "food snob" and throws out his ability to make an awesome German potato salad (his mom's recipe) as proof.
So it's not so much the "type" of food he passes judgment on, just whether it's well prepared and presented.
"I'm not really fond of some of the 'finer' foods you're supposed to enjoy," he said "I just like fresh products and I don't use shortcuts. Eating good food is what it's all about. Just keep it simple."