By Sidnee Grubb (’18)
The stakes were higher than the most intense episode of Chopped on The Food Network. Thomas Shelton, or TJ as most call him, was head chef and assistant waiter at a plated lunch for a celebration of the ordination of young Jesuits gathered to converse and reflect on matters of faith. In attendance was the Provincial Fr. Santerosa, a newly ordained bishop. The lunch went on without a hitch. Until TJ reached across the ordained and watched flatware fall from his shaking hands…
TJ Shelton has worked as the head chef for the Jesuit House on Gonzaga’s campus for three years now, a Sodexo employee in Spokane for 11 years, and a food artist since his senior year of high school when he attended a class for youth hosted by the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He later attended The Culinary Institute of Calgary-Alberta and then worked his way up from bussing tables to managing his own kitchen here at Gonzaga.
The kitchen at the Jesuit House is not just any kitchen though – at least that’s what rumor says. Gonzaga students, tour guides especially, are notorious for telling incoming students that being invited to a Jesuit dinner is an honor of the highest regard, and a dining experience bordering on a four-star chef made meal.
TJ finds this over flattering, and worth a good laugh. The Jesuit meals are simple: two soups, two proteins, two starches and two vegetables. It is, in fact, not really in character for the Jesuits to expect extravagant meals, but TJ prides himself on putting out his best work, and managing his kitchen with cleanliness, organization and a special love for presentation. Although the food is buffet style, he loves making plated dinners for special events, and is responsive to the Jesuits’ dietary needs and health concerns. He loves his job.
He’s grateful to the Jesuits for his job, and to his former McCarthey Athletic Center catering supervisor and teacher Chef Jeremy Goldsmith, and for the latitude he has in his position. While he has more business responsibilities as head chef than he did back in his line cook days, he doesn’t consider himself a “paper chef” as he calls it – a chef who only has time for inventory, scheduling, payroll and paperwork. He still gets his hands dirty (or, rather, clean) to put out meals for the Jesuits. “It’s the best part!” he asserts with a big smile.
TJ is proud to be a part of the Jesuit community in this way. He’s always happy to welcome any of the men into his kitchen to cook their own breakfast, to correct his pronunciation of French cuisine or to make any special requests. He’s looking forward to working in the new Jesuit residence, but not because of the kitchen. The one he works in now is one of the most functionally designed kitchens he’s ever worked in. No, he hopes that the new Jesuit residence attracts more Jesuits to our campus, and his dining hall.
At the end of the day, TJ goes home to a wife and three children under the age of three. The food and catering industry can be hard on families, but not his, although some nights he is a little tired of cooking. Just like the best of us, his kids eat frozen chicken nuggets every now and then.
Fr. Santerosa smiled and gave TJ a thumbs up as the cutlery clattered. “It’s okay, don’t worry,” his smile said. The Jesuit’s genuine kindness, and TJ’s relationship with them through his service as head chef has always created an atmosphere of calm and togetherness in the Jesuit dining hall. TJ provides an atmosphere and a (mostly) steady hand that has always been there able to smooth the table cloth in tricky situations.
[photos by Zack Berlat]