25, No. 13, Jan. 19, 2006
the job: Tom Austin
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
is a cook in the Housing Division. Some might think
he's a combination of a children's show host and a
celebrity chef. "My favorite thing is telling
stories," said Austin.
Mix a little
bit of a children’s show host and a bit of celebrity chef and
you might have the makings of Tom Austin, a cook in the Housing Division.
“My favorite thing is telling stories,” says Austin, a self-taught
chef and former food columnist who is writing an unconventional cookbook
that will help readers learn to cook spontaneously. Austin, who splits
his work weeks between Illinois Street and Florida Avenue residence
halls, joined the university’s staff as extra help a couple of
years ago and then became a full-time employee last February. When he’s
not experimenting in his kitchen, Austin enjoys reading and ballroom
How did you become a cook?
When I was 16, I was a busboy at a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant
in St. Louis, and one Friday night a cook got sick right before the
line opened, and the chef said, ‘Hey, kid, come back here. You’re
going to help us out tonight.’ I was there all weekend, fetching
things for them and watching and learning. When the cook died a few
days later, I had the job. Even though I was still in high school, I
worked with the chef there for a couple of years. When he left to open
his own restaurant, I took over his position. I was 18 or 19 years old
and was a chef in a restaurant that most of the kids in my upper-middle-class
high school couldn’t afford to eat in.
Where else have you worked?
I’ve worked in Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin. I stayed
some places a year, some places five years, and moved on when I got
bored. I went from place to place to gain different kinds of experience.
I had a bakeshop in Minnesota for a while, where I did outside catering
along with retail and wholesale baking.
I did catering at a women’s club for about four years, catering
about 150 weddings a year there – one every Friday and two every
Saturday. I taught myself how to decorate wedding cakes one afternoon
by getting a cake-decorating book, mixing up 60 quarts of icing and
decorating my workbench.
What has kept you interested in cooking all
Mom used to make homemade bread all the time, and I really enjoyed helping
her. When I was about 4, she taught me how to make 1-2-3-4 Cake. As
my children each turned 4, I’d visit their preschool classes and
help the kids make homemade cupcakes. That could be really interesting,
especially having the children crack the eggs. Once we had to crack
two dozen eggs in order to get four into the bowl. One of my daughters
learned how to do Bananas Foster flambé when she was in about
second grade and would invite her friends over for flaming desserts
as an after-school snack. During my years in the kitchen, I was always
learning, creating new dishes and teaching new staff. When I finally
attended the University of Wisconsin at the age of 36, many people there
told me I should be a teacher. After thinking about it, I realized that
I had been one for the previous 20 years. I enjoyed it, and I guess
that’s what has kept me doing it.
How did you get interested in food writing
and in writing a cookbook?
About eight years ago, my brother asked for a recipe and directions
to make pot roast. My reply evolved into a food column for the Decatur
Herald & Review. The column ran for a couple of years, until I had
a mild stroke about two years ago. The column was called “Ask
Chef Who?” and it featured stories about different foods and some
of my spontaneous moments in the kitchen. I told how I came up with
dishes or what inspired me to put certain ingredients together. I usually
included recipes because the food editor said that people liked recipes.
The cookbook evolved over the years from people telling me, ‘I
wish that I could cook like you do, without a recipe, without measuring
or anything. You should write a cookbook.’ It’s a cookbook
to teach you how. No real recipes, just a range of discussions about
recipes, the differences and similarities in cooking methods and how
to interchange them, and how to avoid being intimidated or narrowly
directed by somebody else’s recipe.
What inspired you to create the gingerbread
castle that was displayed at ISR before the holidays?
I’ve been interested in gingerbread for a long time. One Christmas
I made gingerbread houses at my shop and sold them at a mall kiosk.
I had been toying with the idea of creating a castle because Camelot
is my favorite story. I had talked about the idea with Keith Garrett,
the unit manager at ISR. The Monday that we returned from Thanksgiving
break, I did a quick sketch of a castle and began working on it. I didn’t
want square or rectangular towers, so I tried different methods of wrapping
the gingerbread dough around cardboard tubes before baking it. The rest
was a piece of cake, well, actually gingerbread, and it was a fun project.
I worked on it every spare minute that I could and had help from a few
students who sculpted landscape by sprinkling coconut and granola. Special
thanks to my co-workers who picked up the slack while I was immersed
in the project.