February 5, 2014

Chef Profile: Becker House Food ‘Inspired’ By Students

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If you’re reading this while eating in a dining hall or at an à la carte location on campus, do you know who made what you’re eating? The sad truth is, probably not. To put at least one name to the faces of Cornell Dining –– to those that keep this campus fueled from class to class and prelim to prelim –– I introduce Tony Kveragas, chef manager of Becker House.

Not only is Kveragas –– who goes by Chef Tony –– responsible for some of the most creative and authentic meals on campus, but he also has an interesting personal backstory and culinary philosophy. From his professional journey to chef manager, to his love for Cornell students and culture, Kveragas brings more than just meals to the table.

Despite his current culinary passions, Kveragas didn’t always want to be a chef. With interests in history and anthropology, he enjoyed all fields and disciplines that involved people and what makes them happy. However, while working a catering job at Harvard University, Kveragas found the underlying commonality: food.

“I saw how appreciative people were of the food that I brought to them,” Kveragas said. “Food is the common denominator that unites everyone. It means different things to different people, but it always takes on a special meaning.”

But rather than pursue his newfound love of food, Kveragas did what most twentysomethings feel obligated to do: he sought out a secure job. After working for the research department for Gulf Oil, Kveragas quickly became bored of the structured work environment.

So, again, Kveragas did what almost every twentysomething desires to do, though few have the courage: He quit his job with Gulf Oil to begin his culinary adventures. Kveragas left for France with no connections and no money –– following his heart to where he knew food, history, anthropology and wine would be waiting.

For three years, he lived in France studying at culinary school and working as an au pair. He later left France for Cornell to pursue a degree specializing in Food Industry Management at the Charles H. Dyson School for Applied Economics and Management, and he has yet to leave.

According to Kveragas, his permanent stay at Cornell is the result of the unique and “inspiring” cultural diversity of the University’s students and staff. Kveragas is constantly searching for new ideas and recipes for authentic cultural dishes to bring to Becker House, and he often gets his inspiration for his dishes from students and the staff that work in the Becker House Dining Room.

“I learn so much from everyone I work with at Cornell,” Kveragas said. “In the Becker kitchen alone, eight to nine different languages are spoken. I ask my staff to show me an authentic recipe from their homeland and produce it on a large scale for the students.”

Kveragas is passionate about connecting himself and his staff to the students, saying that utilizing their cultural diversity as a means for culinary creativity and variety makes them feel grateful to contribute to the Cornell community –– and also helps bring authentic, delicious food to the dining halls where students can get a taste of home even if they live thousands of miles away.

Kveragas says without hesitation that the best part about working for Cornell Dining is “the students, for sure. It gets desolate when the students aren’t here: They bring the energy and the excitement.” He added that one of the best aspects of the Becker House kitchen is that he and his staff get to see the reaction of the students they serve.

“You can see the smiles on the kids faces. That has to be the best part of the pay. The happiness you bring to people by the quality of food you serve is what makes cooking great –– it’s contagious.”

Yes, we all attend a high-stress school. And yes, many of us are insanely busy. Whenever we can, we squeeze in a quick bite to eat between studying or while walking to class. But I’d like to challenge you to think about who prepared your meal, just for a second, the next time you grab a sandwich to go or sit down at a dining hall. Think about the effort, collaboration and thought behind the meal –– you may have even provided the inspiration for it.

So if you’re ever on West Campus, stop into the Becker House Dining Room, and you too can put a name to one of the many faces of Cornell Dining and chat with Kveragas. You’ll find that behind the scenes of Cornell Dining, there’s both quality food and quality people.

Quick Fire Questions with Chef Tony Kveragas

A behind the scenes look at the making of the video

Sun dining writer Casey Carr ’14 chats with Chef Tony Kveragas, head chef of Becker House.

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Chef Tony Kveragas’ recipe calls for ingredients like pomegranates and feta cheese, among others.

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Q: What is your favorite meal?

A: Soup –– there’s a whole meal in a soup, and it can take on so many different forms.

If a typical whisk won’t suffice, Chef Tony Kveragas pulls out the big guns.

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Sun videographer Kiki Li Beifan ’17 takes some close-ups.

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Q: What inspires you?

A: Different cultures

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Q: What is your favorite dinner night at Becker House?

A: Italian night on Thursdays. We play Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and have creme brûlée, tiramisu and a past cooking exhibition on the stage. It’s a lot of fun!

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Carr and Chef Tony Kveragas put the finishing touches on their dish.

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Q: What is your favorite ingredient?

A: Lemon juice is great for bringing out flavor undertones, even in chicken noodle soup.

Carr plates the salad.

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

And she gets a little carried away. (Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)

Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Ithaca?

A: I eat at Cornell Dining all the time because the food is really great here. But I will go out for certain things, like Oyster’s at Maxi’s, Zaza’s for a rack of lamb, Diamond’s for lunch.

(Alex Hernandez / Sun Staff Photographer)