Award-winning chef brings creativity to his cravings
College cafeteria food is often remembered for the wrong reasons: mystery meat and vegetables that look nothing like what mama made back home.
Glen Pugh’s job is to make cafeteria food tasty. As chef at Middle Tennessee State University’s McCallie Dining Hall, Pugh plans menus aimed to please. What most students do not know is that they now have an award-winning chef supervising the preparation of their three squares a day.
Last May, as most students were settling in to summer jobs, Pugh, 25, won the gold medal at the ARAMARK Culinary Excellence Challenge in Knoxville. This is an annual competition between chefs from colleges and universities throughout the South. ARAMARK is the food services vendor that operates all the dining facilities on campus.
“I was one of the youngest chefs to ever win a gold medal and one of the youngest chefs to be on the team nationally,” he said. “That is a huge honor; it made my head swell up real big, but I got over that.”
Pugh, who grew up in nearby Readyville, Tenn., found himself drawn to cooking at an early age by helping his mother prepare family meals.
At 16, Pugh got a part-time job on campus making sandwiches at Subway. He really liked working with food, and his enjoyment was noticed by then-MTSU Chef James Quinn, who studied in England and throughout Europe. Quinn took Glen under his wing and taught him the ins and outs of the culinary world.
Although Pugh did not attend a formal four-year culinary school, he learned enough from Chef Quinn and others who followed him to earn membership in the American Culinary Federation.
Even without classical training, Pugh finds ways to put gourmet spins on southern classics. He enjoys coming up with new recipes in his free time with his family. “My sister and I even made gourmet chicken and dumplings one night.”
When Pugh was hired as executive chef, he decided he wanted to make food not only healthy for the customers, but also eco-friendly.
“I love sustainability,” Pugh said. “I was put in charge of creating the menus, which I wanted to be as fresh and healthy as possible.”
Cooking for thousands of college students with different tastes is no easy task, which is why Pugh and other ARAMARK employees meet with students on the last Wednesday of every month to give feedback on what they like or dislike about the food.
He also likes to take classic cafeteria food and let his personality shine through the food.
“I love using wine every day, and sometimes I even put it in the food,” he joked.
Pugh plans all the meals in MTSU’s three residential dining facilities, McCallie, the James Union Building and the Raider Zone. All the eateries serve different food because they cater to different groups of people.
“Every dining hall is different, Pugh said. “There’s no two places that are the same.”
Pugh was awarded the gold medal for jalapeno, bacon, cheddar stuffed chicken served with a fire-grilled red bell pepper sauce.
Some may think that with a gold medallion in hand, the next step would be to work for a four or five star restaurant, or opening his own place, but that is not what Pugh has in mind.
“I love this environment. I love the opportunities that ARAMARK provides for me. They provide me the medium to hone my craft and become an expert. I don’t plan on ever leaving,” he said.
And he’s proud of the products served every day.
When asked if there was anything else he wanted to say, Pugh smiled and tilted his head.
“Do y’all want to buy a meal plan?”