Patrick McElroy, the culinary director and campus executive chef at Washington University in St Louis, leads a team of 300 culinarians who serve 10K-plus meals every day in a program that has consistently landed on Best Campus Food lists. “Patrick is a natural-born problem solver who is a humble and quick witted; I can’t say enough about him. In his 10 years at Wash U, he’s been impactful on so many levels, from helping create Missouri’s first certified halal program to partnering with Native American chefs and the Brown School of Social Work to promote native foods,” said District Manager David Murphy. Patrick has also repeatedly volunteered in response to chef-humanitarian José Andrés’s call for chefs, supporting World Central Kitchen’s efforts in South Carolina, Iowa, and Kansas; just recently he’s been up and down the East Coast helping run logistics to prepare for Hurricane Dorian.
Here’s Patrick, in his own words.
Who and what inspired you to become a chef?
My interest in food started at a very young age. My father was in the military, and I lived in Asia from the ages of 6 to 10. This time overseas exposed me to many cultural experiences, including the rich food cultures of southeast Asia and parts of Europe. When we came back to the States, my family settled in a very small town in the middle of Missouri. My parents picked up where my travels left off and just made really great food. My mother was amazing at comfort foods, while my father excelled at all things smokes and grilled. I admittedly joke that becoming a chef was not always the path I was seeking — the career found me, and I fell in love with it.
If you had to pick five ingredients to be shipwrecked on a dessert island with, what would they be?
Water, for sure. Miso paste, a bunch of live chickens, a mystery box from Chefs Garden, and a lifetime supply of sour gummy worms!
Cooking for famous people is in the moment, a highlight in time framed on a wall or on Facebook. Those are fun memories you talk about with your friends at the bar or at parties. But the image of a 5-year-old girl who has survived a hurricane, lost everything but the clothes she was wearing the day the hurricane hit and has not eaten anything for two days, is one I’ll never forget and will always humble me.”
Who’s been your most important guest?
I’ve been very fortunate to cook for some very high-profile guests in my career. I’ve cooked for the past four presidents several times; worked with renowned chefs Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, and Curtis Duffy; and cooked for many celebrities and famous athletes, but I’m going to defer to a more humbling experience. One far from the glamorous spotlight — one of hardship and one of hope.
Last year I was very fortunate to join the team at World Central Kitchen. Bon Appétit CEO Fedele Bauccio sent me to assist them after the hurricane hit North Carolina, providing food relief in the surrounding areas. Our kitchen was responsible for producing 10,000 meals per day. The outreach from the community, other areas’ Bon Appétit chefs, and the passion of the World Central Kitchen team was truly heartwarming. [Read more about Bon Appétit’s work with World Central Kitchen.]
In our world, we often cook for ourselves and carry those along with us who help you become successful. In a relief effort, the emotions are different. They are deeply rooted in impact, tragedy, and the flicker of hope that is weathered by fear and the unknown. When cooking in a disaster-relief environment, the thought of being tired or needing a break does not exist. The pain in your back from making 4,000 sandwiches and your sore knees from the long hours do not matter. They seem to blend in with the kitchen noise. All thoughts go to those who are hurting. Little things like a hot meal, a conversation about hope, or just a hug are so powerful and have such an impact to those that have been displaced.
Since my North Carolina experience, I have assisted World Central Kitchen in Nebraska during the floods and most recently during Hurricane Dorian, supporting along the Florida cost and support for the Bahamas. The values that I have learned over the year has been deeply rooted in emotion and self-worth. The spark of one can unite growth and change. A conversation that José and I had while working in Nebraska together will forever stay with me. Because of this experience, my hand will always be the first raised when the call is needed.
Cooking for famous people is in the moment, a highlight in time framed on a wall or on Facebook. Those are fun memories you talk about with your friends at the bar or at parties. But the image of a 5-year-old girl who has survived a hurricane, lost everything but the clothes she was wearing the day the hurricane hit and has not eaten anything for two days, is one I’ll never forget and will always humble me. Handing that little girl a plate of warm food, the smile on her face and on thousands of faces just like hers is the most important cooking I’ve ever done. I thank Bon Appétit for allowing me the opportunity to represent this company and help bring hope to those who need it most.