Amid coronavirus uncertainty, USC chefs bring comfort and familiar faces to students

A dedicated team of kitchen workers is still serving hundreds of meals a day to USC students and others on the University Park Campus, with care and safety in mind.

March 27, 2020 Eric Lindberg

In a time of great unease and worry, USC students unable to leave campus can rely on a familiar source of comfort: a warm, hearty meal.

Chef Nathan Martinez and his team of dedicated kitchen workers are dishing up 700 takeout meals each day at Everybody’s Kitchen, the sole residential dining hall open on the University Park Campus. Despite the risk of being around people during the COVID-19 pandemic, they feel driven to step up for the Trojan community — and they’re taking steps aimed at keeping everyone safe.

“It’s our duty,” said Martinez, senior kitchen manager for residential dining. Doctors, nurses and other health workers are on the front lines of the coronavirus response, he noted, but support staff also have a valuable role to play: “People still need to be fed. We take pride in being able to serve our students on this campus. If we’re not open, where are they going to go?”

That mindset of service is at the heart of USC Hospitality’s mission, said Carlos Perez, senior manager of operations at Everybody’s Kitchen and Little Galen. He’s been working in USC’s dining halls for nearly 20 years.

“We love what we do,” he said. “People are depending on us. That’s why we work in hospitality. We like making sure that other people are taken care of, no matter what the circumstances.”

Classic dishes on offer for USC students, with a side of social distancing

Everybody’s Kitchen is known for comfort food, Martinez said, so the team is sticking to the classics. Meatballs, lasagna, rotisserie chicken, wedge and mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, hamburgers and French fries have all made the rotation in recent days.

USC kitchen staff chefs meals for students
EVK staffers are preparing nourishing options to accompany the classic comfort foods that students enjoy. (Photo/Jesse Miranda)

“We’re keeping everybody comfortable,” he said. “We have nourishing foods like salads, too — mixed greens, Caesar salad. Today we had a tuna salad on mixed greens.”

Along with providing warmth and reassurance, safety is a top priority. Although USC’s kitchen staff always has cleanliness and safety in mind, extra precaution is being exercised during food preparation and service. Chefs are changing their gloves regularly and keeping their distance from one another.

During each shift, two staff members are dedicated solely to cleaning duty, working diligently to keep everything sanitary. That goes for countertops, other kitchen surfaces, customer waiting areas and even the cash register.

“In addition to all our usual food safety and sanitation procedures and protocols, we have a timer that goes off every 15 minutes,” Perez said. “Then we wipe down and sanitize all the common areas.”

Salt and pepper shakers have been removed to avoid any risk of contamination. Students and others picking up meals are guided by signs and clearly marked paths to ensure they remain a safe distance apart at all times. Erik Russell, associate director of residential dining for USC Auxiliary Services, said those preventive measures were established soon after the coronavirus pandemic began its global spread.

“We were very quick to put those systems into place,” he said. “We wanted to make it very clear: Stand here, stand there, go in this direction.”

USC dining hall remains committed to serving Trojan community

USC kitchen staff chefs meals for students
EVK is open from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. every day. (Photo/Courtesy of Carlos Perez)

Until the coronavirus situation changes or new guidelines are issued, USC officials said Everybody’s Kitchen will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week. In addition to the dining hall, students and other people on campus can find prepackaged meals at Trojan Grounds and Seeds Marketplace.

Most diners at Everybody’s Kitchen are USC students, Perez said, including those normally served by the Trojan Food Pantry. Some student-athletes who remained at USC are also grabbing to-go meals, as are staff members who are performing essential tasks on campus.

Russell said availability of food and beverages is not a concern; the university’s suppliers are still delivering items as needed. Before the coronavirus pandemic, USC’s residential dining halls and Little Galen served 10,000 meals a day, so the kitchen team is still working through its food supplies already on site.

And their efforts are not going unnoticed. Perez said he’s been heartened to see exchanges of thanks and reassurance between students and USC’s kitchen staff as they pick up meals.

“It’s very nice to see students so happy about the fact that we’re still open, because this is their home away from home,” he said. “Seeing us open might bring some kind of normalcy to the situation, even though there’s nothing normal about it. You can tell they have a lot of gratitude for what we’re doing.”

EVK hospitality and maintenance workers USC pandemic
USC staff member Juan Estrada prepares boxed lunches for USC hospitality and housing maintenance workers. (Photo/Nathan Martinez)

Echoing those sentiments, Erika Chesley, associate director for engagement and communications in USC Auxiliary Services, said the sense of service among dining and hospitality workers is being echoed by staff members across campus.

“We’re here because we want to be,” she said. “We love the university, and we have a great love for our students, faculty and staff. We know that many people are depending on us. We are happy to support them and give them the services they need.”