While most children were still learning to read, 8-year-old Eric Cartwright stood in his mom’s kitchen, making eclairs.
Now, as the executive chef for MU Campus Dining Services, he cooks in a much more professional kitchen — the Culinary Development Kitchen, hidden behind an inconspicuous set of brown double doors in Sabai. Cartwright has been the executive chef for the past nine years and is the first to hold that position.
Cartwright has always enjoyed cooking, which is why he spoke with a recruiter at Johnson and Wales University, which has a culinary program, when a high school teacher assigned the students a project to interview a person in a career field they were interested in.
“I left there saying, 'This is it! This is what I want to do!’” Cartwright said. “Then I got my first job in a restaurant, I was 15 or 16, busing tables and washing dishes, and I've never looked back.”
Right after high school, Cartwright went to Johnson and Wales for two years of formal culinary school. All the while, he was working in restaurants. He said he learned just as much from working in restaurants as he did in school.
“What culinary school, much like any formal education, gives you is the textbook knowledge behind it,” Cartwright said. “The actual work gives you the application of it. Doing both of those allowed me to advance through the career path quicker than had I just gone to school or just worked.”
As of now, Cartwright has been cooking professionally for 23 years. Prior to working at MU, he worked in private restaurants, country clubs and fine dining. But once he entered the collegiate dining scene, he “fell in love with it.”
“We can constantly create – that’s where the excitement comes in as a chef,” Cartwright said. “As you go around campus we've got 20-some locations, no two of which are the same, versus being in a restaurant where you're very structured and everything has a theme, and this is what we're always doing. One day we can be cooking Asian, the next day we're cooking Spanish, the next day it’s Southern American cuisine. It's ever-changing and evolving, and that's pretty cool.”
Cartwright said that to prepare to teach staff how to cook such a wide variety of food, he goes to workshops and seminars, talks with colleagues and reads extensively. But he’s helped by the fact that, for the most part, the basic processes are the same no matter the recipe.
“As you start to delve into other cuisines, there's some specific things maybe you didn't know about that cuisine, but the concept behind it is all rooted in fundamental cooking,” Cartwright said. “If we're going to saute something, to saute is to saute is to saute. The fat may be different, the type of pan may be different, but to saute is to saute. So it's taking those fundamentals and applying them.”
On the Job
As the executive chef, Cartwright’s responsibilities can be roughly split into four main categories: recipe testing and menu development, staff training, product selection and working with food vendors, and helping with equipment selection and facility layout for new CDS operations.
However, Cartwright said he does surprisingly little cooking. His many duties keep him in his office most of the time. He said he’s only testing recipes in the kitchen about one or two days a week on average.
“I’d like to be in here all the time if I could, but other duties call,” Cartwright said. “When I cook, it’s either for development purposes or for training.”
Cartwright has implemented successful staff training programs to boost the culinary skill of all employees, not just the sous chefs. Nancy Monteer, the associate director of Campus Dining Services, said that Cartwright’s teaching ability is one of his best traits.
“He will teach you things without you even knowing you’re being taught,” Monteer said. “He just has that way about him. He can show you something or tell you something and it’s sunk into your brain, just the way he does it. He relates very well to people. He’s never above anybody, he’s on their level.”
Cartwright’s expertise is also being recognized outside the university. In March, Cartwright won an American Culinary Federation gold medal, the highest award, and placed first in the National Association of College and University Food Services Midwest Regional Conference Culinary Challenge. This was his first gold medal and the only gold medal to have been won by a current CDS staff member. This summer, Cartwright will compete with five others on the national level.
Monteer has been the associate director for the past two of the 16 years she’s worked at CDS. She said that having an executive chef has been very helpful in improving the department as whole.
“Eric has been able to take us to the next level by leading the sous chefs,” Monteer said. “Eric is the culinary guru of our department – he leads and guides and directs and works very closely with each of those sous chefs to raise the culinary skill of our full-time employees. Under Eric’s direction, we’ve really come to focus on fresh and local products. We try to buy as much local as we can.”
Another of Cartwright’s major goals is returning the focus of CDS to more scratch cooking. He said about 25 years ago nearly all food on campus was made from scratch. About 15 years ago, labor shortages made that nearly impossible.
But in the nine years Cartwright has been executive chef, he has developed more fresh food options, including making fresh guacamole at Baja Grill twice a day, brining and breading the chicken at Mort’s by hand, smoking all the meats on site at Do Mundo’s and frying fresh donuts every morning at Infusion.
“And that's not just something you do overnight – it takes time,” Cartwright said. “We have to train staff, we have to develop the recipes, we have to develop the menus. And will we ever be to where we make 100 percent of things? No. And we don't necessarily need to be. But we've made huge strides.”
Julaine Kiehn, the director of Campus Dining Services, has been working for the department for nearly 28 years.
“When I first came here, we had six residential dining facilities, and they all served the same menu,” Kiehn said. “They were like cookie cutters of each other. And then we started to branch out to say, let’s offer our customers more by differentiating our products, by giving areas of specialty to our various locations. And then we started having a need for who’s going to develop all this.”
That’s where Cartwright came in. Kiehn said that the managers of the dining halls came to her saying that while the sous chefs had expertise, they needed an executive figure to unite and coordinate them. So she found one.
“It’s a difference of night and day in what we’re able to do,” Kiehn said of hiring Cartwright. “I don’t know how we’d be where we are without that culinary component. How could we have authentic Southeast Asian at Sabai without an executive chef to lead that? Where would we get that? Where would we get the expertise?”
That increased level of expertise is not going unnoticed. Students’ expectations have also risen, said Rollins assistant manager and sous chef Amy Smith.
“I think the students’ palate has matured a little more than it used to be,” Smith said. “And they’re being able to see more. With Sabai, for example – the banh mi sandwich. When I first started here, nobody would’ve known what a bahn mi sandwich was. Now they do. I think they’re more adventurous than they used to be too.”