Sous Chef, Catering Department
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Educational background: High school diploma, New York City
Years in foodservice: 21
Age: 39


Gen-Guo Univ-of-IllinoisGen GuoFE&S: Tell us about your industry experience.

GG: I started working in a restaurant right after high school. My first job was as a cashier, but I realized that cooking was more appealing to me. I ran a restaurant for friends for a couple years and eventually purchased the restaurant. I owned the restaurant and operated it for three years, during which time I learned that I wanted to explore different cuisines.

I got a job at the University of Illinois Dining Services in 2008 and worked as a kitchen helper, prep cook and line cook. I was temporarily promoted twice as a residence halls head cook, and in 2016 was promoted to sous chef in the Catering Department.

FE&S: What attracted you to the foodservice industry and ultimately to campus dining?

GG: I love to try different foods, and I’ve always loved cooking something new. Since starting at the U of I, I’ve found I’ve been able to experiment with different cuisines and have learned much from experienced chefs. The University Dining Service has provided me with the opportunity to do what I love and improve myself in the process.

FE&S:What’s the best career advice you have been given?

GG: Many years ago, I worked with a chef, Chen, who was extremely critical about ingredient standards. He placed a lot of value on the quality of the food he produced. Chef Chen knew that what he produced had an impact on diners. He told me that being a chef is all about the love and care you put into every dish and for every ingredient. His passion for food and ingredients have helped shaped my career.

FE&S: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned about working in this segment?

GG:That different people from all across the world will have their individual preferences; everyone has a different palate. You have to find equilibrium to satisfy everyone.

I’ve also noticed that the younger generations tend to want more contemporary foods as opposed to grandma’s recipes. I have learned to remain flexible, incorporate new concepts and remain adaptable, all while considering the impact of what we’re doing has on the environment.

FE&S: What trends in campus dining are most exciting to you?

GG: The thing that excites me the most is the introduction of local foods into our program. The U of I has been reaching out and working with local farmers to supply Dining Services. I’m also excited about the prospect of fresh produce from the Student Farm. Fresh ingredients, sustainable goods, student employment, local sourcing — there are so many things that excite me.

FE&S: Where do you see the biggest need for change or improvement?

GG: I think that we should create better ways to utilize kitchen food waste. Currently we participate in Zero Percent, a student sustainable farm, bio-digesting and waste diversion. We won the Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award in 2015. We are always looking for positive methods for reducing waste, but I think it’s something that we need to continue to improve on.

FE&S: Describe your biggest challenge on the job.

GG: To minimize mistakes on a daily basis. I, as well as others, thoroughly check our work before food goes to our events because a mistake can create pandemonium in the kitchen. University Catering has more than 8,000 contracts booked in a year and that volume alone creates a variety of logistical challenges. Overcoming the amount of daily changes while making sure you get everything perfect is a constant challenge.

FE&S: What are you most proud of?

GG: Attending the Chef Culinary Conference at UMass with other University of Illinois chefs. There were 13 teams in competition, and we placed with the Silver Medal. It was the highlight of my career, and I hope we compete well this year.

FE&S: Complete this sentence as it relates to your campus dining program, “I really wish we could …”

GG:… introduce more local foods and become locally sustained. Currently, University of Illinois Dining Services uses 95 percent of the produce grown at our Sustainable Student Farm. Ninety percent of the bread that we serve is produced in Illinois. One hundred percent of our coffee is locally roasted. Seventy-five percent of our eggs and 70 percent of our pork come from Illinois. We do an amazing job already and are always trying to improve.

FE&S: What keeps you in this industry?

GG: There is always a new challenge, and it never gets boring. Also, I really enjoy the team that I work with. They make a stressful work environment enjoyable!