By Jason Wu
Michael Russell has a lot of mouths to feed on campus. Fortunately, he has the kitchen to help. That wasn’t always the case. As executive chef of the university’s dining services, Russell has had to deal with many challenges. First, there was the closure of the university’s main cafeteria for two years in 2019 and 2020, forcing him to make do with a temporary tent to serve students and staff food. And then, in 2020 and 2021, there was the Covid-19 pandemic that temporarily shut down campus.
Being a chef is what is in Russell’s blood. Back in his youth, he worked in his grandfather’s luncheonette in Brooklyn. “My grandfather got me more interested in food,” he said. He added that though he was young, he was able to learn how to run the business from his grandfather.
Russell also worked in Aramark services at different accounts such as Citigroup and Bank of New York and practiced catering there. He knew that he liked the businesses when cooking for them.
Additionally, Russell worked in culinary arts in Orlando, Florida, at Disney for five years going through a three-year culinary program, which helped him improve. “I worked in different stations cooking breakfast, lunch, dinner and overnight,” he said. “I was also working in catering and all different facets in Disneyworld.”
Prior to coming to Adelphi, Russell worked at Saint John’s University in Jamaica, New York. He said he wanted another opportunity so he looked at Adelphi University. He has been working here for five years.
The pandemic had reduced the workers, which made it hard for Russell to do his work. Organizing tasks became harder within the lack of employees in the University Center (UC), adding that the biggest challenge was getting people to come back to work. Russell also was discussing with his co-workers the challenges they faced. Since the ongoing pandemic began, people were wondering about how they could help rebuild something in order to make the students feel happy.
“Storage, proper spacing and making sure that everyone is properly socially distanced was a challenge,” said Russell.
It also helped Russell to prioritize or problem solve in case there are a change of plans. He was able to take it step by step in order to have the UC reopened. It took time for him to order utensils, set up menus and stations and receive pans and food. Essentially, Russell also had to do multiple staff training in order to make the stations in the cafeteria all set.
But his communication skills make teamwork easier. “You need to communicate to get everything done,” he said. “Every team member needs to talk.” He was able to talk to purveyors and set up accounts for purchasing.
“It took a lot of time, energy, pre-organizing and pre-planning to hire staff, bring in products and set up menus,” Russell said. “The hardest part is keeping up with the business and issues with the transportation and product availability.”
He thought it could get worse before it got better, but all of the staff members were really happy to get back to the normal routine when the semester started.
“He’s a hard-working chef with exceptional leadership skills,” said Vilma Romero, a cashier in the UC.
Russell has used creativity and dedication to reopen the UC to make sure all students get to dine on campus. His motto? “You should learn something new every day,” he said.