Illinois State University Media Relations

February 2012

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Executive Chef Phil Cade learns about culture through food

Photo of Phil CadeLearning about different cultures through food is one of the most enjoyable parts of Executive Chef Phil Cade’s six-year job at Illinois State University. During the academic year, Cade will plan and cook meals for groups ranging from six to 2,000 people, necessitating intense research into cultural food mores and flavors.

“When America Ferrera came to campus to speak, I started researching Honduran food a few months prior to the event,” Cade said. "The Internet has become one of the most important tools for planning cultural and ethnic gourmet dinners here at the University. I look at restaurants and their offerings as well as what flavors they are featuring.”

Cade, two other chefs and 30 students keep busy planning menus and preparing catered campus meals to the tune of 20 Registered Student Organization dinners/buffets and 200 snack and pizza events; 40 dinners at the University Residence; and 15 tailgates, arena receptions and other campus events. Cade said one of the most challenging parts of the process is writing a menu with special ingredients and finding those ingredients. He might write two to three alternate menus depending on the availability of ingredients as well as the number of people being served. “For smaller dinners, I can use the local specialty grocers for my food supplies, but for dinners like the Martin Luther King Jr. one in January, I would need to order the food well in advance of the event.”

Not only does Cade plan and cook for all the cultural dinners on campus, he also is involved in the University Club gourmet dinners. “I like to do something different with food other than the usual chicken, beef and potatoes,” he said. “It is fun to be creative, although sometimes that creativity leads to food for 600 instead of 500 due to experimentation and then correction.”

Advice from patrons is a key part of Cade’s menu preparation. “I had an African American acquaintance who suggested a specific website for menu planning,” Cade said. “The website not only provided good ideas for meals, but also went into detail about the historical and cultural reasons for certain food preferences.”

Cade’s family emmigrated from Manchester, England, when he was five years old to the small community of Greenup, Ill. "We went from a city of six to seven million to a town of 1,600, where my sister and I talked and initially dressed differently than the rest of the schoolchildren,” he said. “I also had really red hair, making me stand out even more.” Cade said that experience has helped him to embrace others who are physically and culturally different. He enjoys working with the students in his kitchen whose conversational topics and music stretch his knowledge of culture, diversity and life experiences. 

Cade joined the Navy where he was trained to work on airplanes. After leaving the service and a job at General Dynamics, he took a six-month trip to Europe and visited with family. When Cade returned to San Diego, Calif., he started a job making hamburgers at a beach stand. Then Cade went to work for Hyatt Hotels, where he started as a four-year apprentice before becoming a lead cook and then a sous chef. He then traveled all over the U.S. with Hyatt and Marriott on opening teams, including a six-month term in Hawaii.

Cade’s last job before Illinois State was at the Pere Marquette in Peoria. While there, the kitchen participated in a work-release program for inmates from a halfway house. “We had many ex-convicts who were willing to learn a new skill,” he said. “There, I had to actually be forceful with my directions to the workers, while at Illinois State, it is more of a teaching atmosphere, which was an adjustment for me. Currently, seven of the student kitchen staff are African Americans. We have had great students in our kitchen, with some going on to culinary school. One of our students actually did a training manual for new student staff, with examples of production sheets, specs, information providers and photos of different types of food trays. We took his great idea and, after he left, we expanded the manual.”

Cade also serves on the Dining Student Affairs Council, which meets with students once a month for their input about meals and changes they would like to see. He works with ARH (Association of Residence Halls) as well as travels with other University groups for freshman information night.

The Illinois State job came at a time when Cade was looking for better hours to spend with his wife, a faculty member at the University of Illinois, Springfield, and his three children, who are 3, 5 and 7 years of age. “The hours fit my married-with-children lifestyle. I enjoy cooking at the University Residence, trying new menus and working with President Al and Mrs. Bowman, who are good food critics. There is a fair mixture of routine versus creative, allowing me to stretch my skills in planning and preparing foods for diverse groups.”

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