Anyone who has taken on the challenge of cooking for finicky friends and family might blanch at the thought of dishing up a meal for hundreds – even thousands—of people. But that’s a challenge that Louis Gornick, director of catering and administrative executive chef in the Housing Division, takes on nearly every day. Gornick oversees food that is served at the College of Law, Assembly Hall, the Illini Union Ballroom and at other banquets and events. Certified as an executive chef by the American Culinary Federation, Gornick earned a bachelor’s degree in hotel/restaurant management from Iowa State University, a master’s of business administration degree from Colorado State University and an occupational associate of science degree from the California Culinary Academy.
Tell me about your job.
I direct all catering operations, on and off campus. I oversee the quality and consistency of the food, the setups, and I develop recipes and handle the menus.
We have about 60 students and about 20 other staff members in catering, about 10 of whom are full time. We have another 10 full-time staff members in the kitchen. It could balloon up 20 or 30 people when we have big events that involve 2,000 or 3,000 people.
I’ve been here for about six months. It’s a big learning curve for me.
In a typical week, how many events are you catering?
About 80 events on average. It varies with the time of year. We have to be very flexible, especially now because we’re doing weddings. Everything will be ordered and scheduled, and suddenly an event will pop up.
We did a full kosher function at the Illini Union for Passover, so we had a full kosher kitchen for the first time.
What new foods are you interested in introducing and do you try to hook into dining trends?
Sure, that’s real important. I want to increase the freshness, variety and value of the products. For example, more fresh fish, different sauces and marinades.
I am in the process of updating the menu for the ballroom, revising the wine lists, doing some re-education with the staff and trying new foods.
I attend conferences, read a lot of periodicals and watch the Food Channel.
During June, I was in a competition at a conference of the National Association of College and University Food Services at the University of Massachusetts. Chefs from all the over the country attended. Participants had a certain amount of time to produce a meal from the ingredients given to them. I won an ACF bronze medal. I also won the first-place cash prize for the best utilization of sponsored product. It’s very competitive but a lot of fun and a way to get to know people in the industry. I’ve competed in other events through the American Culinary Federation.
What process did you go through to become a certified executive chef?
You take a written and a practical test and the test results and your work background – the number of years in the industry, the number of people you’ve managed – determine which of the seven levels you’re at. Certified master chef is the pinnacle, one level up from certified executive chef. There are only 59 certified master chefs in the entire country, and to reach that level, there’s a 10-day test at the Culinary Institute of America facility in Hyde Park, NY. Eventually, I’ll be working toward that.
I’ve always been near the food industry. It was fun and creative. There was a lot of stuff I could learn quickly. I was probably about 12 years old when I started and about 14 when I was actually working in the kitchen and getting paid.
Where did you work before you came to the university?
I worked in Beverly Hills at L’Ermitage and at the Le Vendee in Florida. I was also the executive sous chef for the Adams Mark, St. Louis. I ran a few different country clubs, such as the Des Moines Golf and Country Club, and the Jefferson City Country Club, Jefferson City, Mo., where I worked prior to coming to the university.
I’ve worked for a few private corporations, and I was the executive chef for a restaurant called Something Different and Snax, which was the only Fine Dining Hall of Fame restaurant in the state of Indiana.