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Cobeen’s top chef

Dee+Thornton+is+known+for+his+dining+hall+inventions+and+his+conversational+personality.
Dee Thornton is known for his dining hall inventions and his conversational personality.

Dee Thornton is known for his dining hall inventions and his conversational personality.

Photo by Helen Dudley

Photo by Helen Dudley

Dee Thornton is known for his dining hall inventions and his conversational personality.

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As a Milwaukee Area Technical College dropout, Dee Thornton, a grill chef at Cobeen Dining Hall, never planned to become a cook. But he said whatever he ended up doing in life, he was going to make sure he did it well.

Thornton began working in Cobeen in 2006 as a dishwasher. His ideal job as cook wasn’t available.

His dishwasher career was short-lived — two or three minutes to be exact — before he filled in for the sandwich maker, who was absent.

“In that one week, the boss really liked what I was doing, for the sandwiches, talking to the (students) and everything, so he moved me to the grill,” Thornton said.

He learned how to cook from his mother, father and grandmother. At first, Thornton was nervous about working at Cobeen’s grill because he was used to only cooking at home.

“I was messing up a lot,” Thornton said.

But soon after, Thornton improved and began making changes to the cooking repertoire. He came up with the idea of serving up food hot off the grill, made to order. Before, cooks would make several dishes at a time and leave them on the counter for anyone to take.

In addition, Thornton came up with his campus-famous “burgerdilla” and “Dee’s special sauce.” The burgerdilla was a combination of a chopped-up hamburger and its toppings inside a quesadilla, and the special sauce was a spicy concoction drizzled on top.

He also made a classic chicken-cheese quesadilla. The idea spread to Straz dining hall, where it is still served.

“I used to have lines of (students) here last year wanting those chicken quesadillas and that sauce,” Thornton said.

Thornton’s favorite part of his job is coming to work and talking to students. He said he remembers a lot of names and faces. He often asks students about their major and their plan in life.

Matt Yazbak, a junior in the College of Business Administration, went to Cobeen Dining Hall every day last year. He enjoyed talking to Thornton about topics ranging from how he was doing, to studying and long lines at the grill. He said his favorite dish from Thornton was the double turkey burger with the special sauce.

Because of the new changes to Cobeen’s menu, Thornton is unable to make his special dishes and must stick to what the electronic screens have.

Yazbak said he was sad about these changes. “The secret menu items were delicious and added so much character to the Cobeen menu,” Yazbak said. He said it brought people together because word of mouth was primarily how students found out about the secret menu items.

Thornton said one of the challenges he has is to stay focused. He said it is stressful when students are coming out of class, they are in a hurry and hungry for a dish they want prepared a certain way. To add to it, he usually has to remember at least eight dishes at a time.

In the 10 and a half years that Thornton has worked at Cobeen, he said he thinks that besides a month he took off for illness, he’s missed only about five days of work and has never been late.

“In order to do this and be here every day, you got to have a passion for it. And I definitely have a passion for it,” he said.

Donato Guida, the general manager of Sodexo Campus Services, interacts with Thornton at least four or five times a week. He said in an email that Thornton does an amazing job managing a high volume work station.

“His ability to work his station is poetic on its own. With that being said, that is not the beauty of his gift. His ability to connect with the students and make them feel at home is amazing to see in action,” Guida said.

Thornton said if he could have any other job in the world, it would be landscaping. He used to have a landscaping business with his father, and when his father died, so did the business. “I enjoy it just as much as I enjoy cooking,” he said.

However, Guida said he can see Thornton is satisfied where he is. “His work, home and his family is at Cobeen. I feel that he is happy in what he does every day,” Guida said.

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