Jimmy Cawley/Sun Staff Writer

A glimpse of a fraternity kitchen on campus.

February 21, 2022

The Unexpected Fraternity Tastebud Mastermind: Chef Don

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When I recently joined a fraternity, I held onto some skepticism about the lifestyle. Perhaps the biggest question was the quality of the food. Most Cornell students have visited frat houses; we’ve seen the sweaty dance floors packed with people, and we’ve smelled the puke in the corner. To put it lightly, I was a little scared to try the food that my fraternity had to offer. However, my doubts soon dispersed.

I had been invited over to the house to meet members of my fraternity class on a normal Wednesday night. I was told that we were going to eat steak, potatoes, fruit and vegetables. I almost grabbed a quick meal at Toni Morrison beforehand, just in case I couldn’t stomach what they offered. At the last minute, I took my chances, opted against the pre-dinner meal and walked over to the house. As soon as I arrived, the smell of food wafted to my nostrils. It wasn’t the typical fraternity smell of wet feet, but the smell of delicious cooking meat. I stepped down the stairs and was greeted by trays overflowing with green beans, asparagus, steak, salmon and fresh fruit.

I grabbed a plate and immediately dove into my meal. The rugged steak was cooked to a mouth watering medium, and the fruit and vegetables provided great balance with a pallet-cleansing earthy feel. The salmon was the perfect level of toughness and full of flavor: easily better than any fish I have eaten in the Cornell dining halls. My expectations started low, but both the quality and the quantity of the food shocked me. In total, there were about seven large containers filled with different foods to meet all dietary needs. Each container carried more than enough food for the entire house, and there were plenty of leftovers by the end.

A few days later, I was invited back for another dinner. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation. This time, the menu was roast beef, lasagna and chicken. I was once again taken aback by the quality. There had to be a mastermind behind all this, and I needed to meet them.

On a worn out sign above where the food is served read the words, “We reserve the right to refuse service.” However, “we” is crossed out, and the name “Don” is written in its place. When I first saw Don Celentano, he was wearing a white apron and was very focused on cooking. He was taking rounds between the serving area and the oven, swapping out empty containers with steaming trays full of pasta and beef. It is an unspoken rule that you thank Don before heading to the dining room with your plate. Don is a member of the house — no, he is more than a member. He is the house. It is Don who keeps the frat boys fed.

I sat down with Don after consuming another delicious meal. I wanted to know how and why he became a fraternity chef and how his food was consistently fantastic.

Don started off at Cornell in August 1981, working for Cornell Dining. In 1990, he switched to cooking for fraternities, and has done so ever since. The switch from clean, elegant dining halls that Cornell operates, to, well, a frat house is a big change. I figured there must be something motivating Don to stay in the Greek life system.

“The perks are you don’t have a lot of people to work around, so you can do your own thing, use your own creativity, make your own meal plan,” Celentano said. “The downside is that you don’t work all year long; you have a long summer off.”

So, say you’re a chef. You don’t want to take orders from anyone, and you want to work alone in a community where your customers love you. A fraternity seems like the perfect place. Don has complete control of his kitchen, and he doesn’t have anyone micromanaging his every step — because he is the boss.

“These guys treat me very well,” Celentano said. “I love the kitchen; there’s no fancy equipment. I have a stove, and I have a broiler. I have nothing to chop up, and I have nothing to whip. That’s the way I like it.”

According to Don, he and the majority of other frat chefs aren’t aiming to produce a fancy five-star restaurant meal. Instead, they use simple ingredients to master delicious meals day-in and day-out. Frat boys want protein, carbs and vegetables so they can eat as quickly as possible and get back to whatever shenanigans they are up to.

“Taco Tuesday and Prime Ribs are what they love the most,” Celentano said.

Don arrives at the frat house at 8:30 a.m. and leaves at 5 p.m. He writes the menus based on what the brothers request, orders the food, puts away the groceries, manages the pantry, cooks the food and cleans up all the pots and pans.

Don has much more personal responsibility than the typical worker at Cornell Dining. He personally knows all of his customers, and he knows they will have to return to his food. He doesn’t want to disappoint them. With this position, however, also comes great freedom of decision-making.

“I don’t see anyone, nobody tells me what to do, how to do it. I love that; it’s my free expression,” he said. “If you’re working at a restaurant, you’ve got to do what the boss says. You better do it this way, that way, or you’re out of there.”

Don is one of over 25 fraternity chefs at Cornell. He lives a unique life, filled with flexibility, creativity and community support.

The next time you’re singing along to a song at a frat party or dancing with the guys, take a moment to think about the chef behind the scenes who keeps them fed. There’s a lot of moving parts to a fraternity, and the chef is perhaps the most important role. It takes a special kind of person to work 40 hours a week in a fraternity. I urge you at some point to sit down with a frat chef and have them tell you a couple stories — I promise you won’t regret it.

Jimmy Cawley is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].