Kings of the Kitchen

Jan. 14, 2010, 12:02 a.m.

Dining hall workers hash it out with The Daily


At 5:15 on a Sunday afternoon, a quarter of an hour into the dinner service at Lakeside Dining, things begin to stir. Greg Torres-Lopez leisurely places a single burger patty on the grill and a couple of potatoes through the slicer. The dinner-time rush won’t hit for another fifteen minutes.

Average height and stocky, Torres-Lopez appears to be well into his twenties, but in truth he’s just 18. He is a recent high school graduate from East Palo Alto, taking a gap year before pursuing a degree in mechanics at the College of San Mateo next fall. Torres-Lopez has been working the 5 to 9 p.m. dinner shift at Stanford five days a week since his sophomore year — first in the dish room of Ricker Dining and then settling as a hasher at Lakeside five months later.

“This is my first time doing the grill,” he said with a bashful chuckle, pulling open steel drawers under the counter to give the ingredients another once over. It must have been the third time in the last half-hour.

Burgers: check — beef, veggie and black bean. Cheese: check.

Torres-Lopez has already assumed responsibilities in what may have been the honors track for hashing. The student manager, Jose, took him under his wing when Torres-Lopez arrived at Lakeside from Ricker Dining.

“He just started teaching me all the things he does,” Torres-Lopez said. “On Sundays, they would just let me do it.”

Within only two years of starting at Lakeside, Torres-Lopez was promoted to head hasher. He sometimes jokes about how much easier being a head hasher is, as most of his duties revolve around directing other hashers and leading the service in the buffet line.

“It’s chill but you do have to check on the workers and everything, make sure they’re doing their job and not horse-playing,” Torres-Lopez laughed as he described some of the privileges that come along with his new title, between student orders of grilled chicken and a cheeseburger.

Hashers are jacks-of-all-trade in the Stanford kitchens, assisting in a variety of tasks from food preparation to clean-up to cold and hot runs to manning the cash register. They are usually non-University affiliated workers employed by Stanford, many of whom are still in college. But Stanford’s current cohort of hashers is a relatively new breed — over 30 years ago, Stanford students used to be served by their peers. In fact, many prominent Stanford alums — including Vice Provost John Bravman, ‘79, MS ‘81, PhD ‘85 — used to call themselves hashers.

“There was a lot of camaraderie,” Bravman said, reflecting on his interactions with the students he used to serve. “I think students appreciated that [the hashers] were their peers.”

Bravman worked as a cook’s assistant in Wilbur Dining for all four of his years as a Stanford undergraduate. Working up to 15 hours a week on the dinner shift, Bravman forged a strong friendship with his former supervisor, Saul Cardenas. Even as Provost, Bravman still made regular visits to see Cardenas at Wilbur until the chef retired almost five years ago.

Bravman’s class became one of the last to have Stanford students as hashers, but he found hashing to be an unparalleled learning experience.

“I felt responsible,” he said. “I had a sense that what I was doing was important even though I was just feeding people. It helped cement my notion that it really doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you can really bring a sense of quality to almost anything you do. If it’s worth doing, then it’s probably worth doing well.”

Droves of students casually sauntered into Lakeside, many of them eager to go through the bread line as quickly as possible. All were polite but few were openly friendly. Torres-Lopez didn’t seem to notice.

“I just say hi and be nice to them,” he said as he handed a tall student in a San Jose State sweatshirt the double cheese burger he did not order, completely oblivious to the slight scowl on the boy’s otherwise good-natured face. “They do respond more often than not, unless they’re in a bad mood or something.”

The conversations between hasher and student are not always so cursory, however, said Henry Jackson, a part time hasher at Ricker Dining. Perhaps it’s Ricker’s removed location or smaller dinner population, but Jackson can list off the food preferences of almost any given resident of Sterling Quad when it comes to the grill menu. More often than not, his interaction with students is only limited by his current workload.

Jackson had been doing odd jobs for warehouses before applying for the hasher position at Stanford in 2006. He was “tired of going from job to job” and wanted to do something that served others. He found his calling.

“Customer service is important,” Jackson said. “[So,] if I’m not busy, I talk to students.”

Like Torres-Lopez, Jackson has quickly risen through the ranks, despite only having worked at Stanford for three years. Now he trains new employees.

“I’ve basically trained most of the people that come through,” he said. “[It’s] not really challenging. Actually, to me it’s kind of fun to show them you know to make sure that the job gets done because that’s where I started. It gives them aspiration.”

Jackson’s emphasis on helping others has also extended beyond just his day job —  he spends his free time volunteering at Palo Alto’s Opportunity Center, a nonprofit group to serve the needs of the homeless.

“I know how it used to be,” Jackson said calmly.  “I was homeless myself at one point.”

It was only for two years — 1996-1997 — a time when Jackson was struggling with bouts of substance abuse. He knows all too well that being homeless is difficult and dangerous, so he does what he can to help others in the same dilemma make changes in their lives.

“[Whether] they need a change of clothes or [help] down the right direction,” Jackson said, “it’s just helping somebody.”

Former hashers like Bravman appreciate Jackson’s and other hasher’s commitment to service — both in and out of the dining halls.

“For the most part the staff [now] take their jobs very seriously and they really like serving students,” Bravman said. “I think they feel really privileged to be working here and they derive a real sense of satisfaction from serving their students well. I have really high praise for them.”

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