By Meaghan Menzel
When Chef Otis Monroe heard he won the 2015 Mid-Atlantic Region Chef of the Year Award from Chartwells’ Be-A-Star program, he was “at first shocked and then, in the best word, very humble,” he said. He had to be nominated for the award, “so it felt kind of good.”
Director of Dining Services Don Stanwick said, “He [Monroe] is very engaging with the students. He gets to know quite a few of the students by name. He kind of knows their eating habits and if they have allergies. Just that personal engagement, I think, sticks him above a lot of other chefs… Outside of that, he makes a really, really good mac and cheese too.”
Monroe is from Pondtown and has worked at WC for about 20 years. He is one of the two sous chefs who specifically takes care of logistics, “so I take care of meals and stuff for the students,” he said.
When Monroe was in high school he worked at the WC dining hall for about three years before he went to military school for the Navy. He was stationed in Pearl Harbor on the destroyer USS Leftwich during the Gulf War. “Its job is a submarine hunter,” he said. “The best way to look at it is you have the Secret Service—they’re supposed to take a bullet for the president. Well, we’re supposed to take missiles for the carriers.” Working aboard the destroyer, he said, “It makes you become a man a little sooner than later… At 18, I found myself in charge of a flight deck.” His job was landing and securing helicopters.
Monroe traveled to many places while serving in the Navy including Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Gulf Region, including Iraq. He also did one tour to South America and got to sail past the equator for a ceremony.
“I always enjoyed the food and travel and making friends,” he said. “Even though… it was wartime for us, a lot of places we went we got a lot of respect and a lot of good food… and I was always thankful for that.”
Afterwards, he came back to Chestertown looking for jobs. “One day, I just happened to drive by, and I’m like, ‘You know what? Try the college.’” He immediately got a job sweeping until he found a spot open in the kitchen. “I was always helping the cooks here, so it was like, ‘Hey man, you should apply to cook.’ You know, they didn’t ask me, they told me to apply here.”
Monroe has been cooking since he was a child. He cooked with his mom, dad, and grandfather, who liked to cook wild game. “I just gravitated toward cooking,” he said. “I started off doing small stuff… and then I started going and looking at recipes. It’s kind of weird because I found I could look at a recipe and understand it, even at a young age… It was just something natural to me.”
A couple months later, Monroe visited the Culinary Institute of America with the executive chef at the time and decided to apply there. “I sent the applications to one of the chefs up there, and it was probably about three weeks later, and he’s like, ‘Can you leave next week?’”
He left Chestertown to go to culinary school for about a year and a half and held a few different jobs while attending school. He was a waiter for Martha Stewart and worked for the Food Network helping the celebrities prepare the food for TV. He received his letter of completion and would have walked with the other graduates, but then 9/11 hit.
Before 9/11, he had been interning at the Pentagon for about four months. “Then my grandfather died. I think it was Sept. 9,” he said, so he came back for the funeral. While he was back, he decided to visit WC who asked if he could return to work in the Dining Hall for a special event. His grandfather’s death, though, was the reason he missed the attack on 9/11. After that, he decided to join the Maryland Defense Force (MDDF), which he described as a “volunteer militia.”
“[They] just keep everybody safe in Maryland,” he said. “I don’t think I can honestly just sit back on the sidelines, I guess, but I know I’m getting older, so I can’t do things like I used to… [but] it’s like the old saying, if there’s a fire or something, most people are running that way, you’re running toward it.” Monroe is still a member of the MDDF as a sergeant while at the same time working for WC.
According to Monroe and Stanwick, Campus Executive Chef Prince Johnson won the Mid-Atlantic Region Chef of the Year award, and according to the WC website, Dining Hall Employee Adrian “A.J.” Blake won the Mid-Atlantic Region Hourly Associate of the Year award from Chartwells in 2013.
Chartwells is a program that, according to Eat Learn Live’s website, “uses creative programing to instill a lifelong habit of eating right while engaging students in a memorable campus community environment.” According to the first edition of “Chartwells Magazine,” “Be-A-Star is Chartwells’ premier account and associate recognition program. Each year, we honor those associates and teams that have gone above and beyond expectations and have truly made a difference.”
“We’ve had the past two winners here… so hopefully we can continue the trend,” Stanwick said. “Hopefully we can have somebody else win it this upcoming school year.”