Darren Macri has a bachelor’s degree in percussion performance from Central Washington University, but even now as the school’s catering chef, he still finds time to practice his rudiments.

“It’s such an insane job,” Macri said about his current profession. “It’s a lot of hours, stressful, but weirdly enough there’s a lot of correlation between (music and cooking). And I have all the pots and pans I could ever play on, much to the chagrin of my bosses sometimes.”

While studying music, Macri helped put himself through school by working at the Yellow Church Cafe, something he instantly fell in love with. Knowing that his music degree might not be bringing home the proverbial bacon anytime soon, he kept cooking. After graduation, he played music around Yakima and Seattle and continued to work in restaurants as well.

“I just really love pleasing people,” Macri said. “With music, people go there to enjoy themselves. When it comes to food, the main mission of any culinary person is making something someone enjoys. Once you get to see the reactions to food, it makes you feel good, it makes them feel good, and it’s one of those jobs that has to be done. Everyone eats every single day.”

Continuing the comparison, Macri said both require intense preparation, experienced-based knowledge and continual education. He said both are crafts where you don’t get to wake up one day and say “Oh, I’m good now.”

Day job

Macri said no two days are a like as a catering chef at a university. On any given day he could be preparing a 400-person banquet, sourcing food for 100 people worth of hors d’oeuvres or performing cost analysis of meals.

Macri makes all the menus from grab and go food, to food trucks, to the online menu and everything in between. He also helps coordinate the student workers’ schedule and serves a teaching role to all the students that cycle in and out of CWU dining.

“That is one of the more fun parts about our job,” Macri said. “It keeps you young. You also hear input about what kind of food works in that kind of demographic.”

Competition

Macri was approached by his boss about applying to compete in a National Association of College & University Food Services competition. Macri applied, sending in his recipe and bio, then was one of eight people accepted to compete in the Pacific region.

Those accepted, he traveled to Spokane for a whirlwind weekend of cooking in front of an audience, cameras and judges.

“I went into it thinking ‘Oh it won’t be that bad, I’ve performed in front of people,’” Macri said with a laugh. “A lot of restaurants have open kitchens, but that’s not the same thing. You’re in your comfort zone, just like being home.”

It turned out the competition environment was not a comfort zone.

“Everything is different, from what you’re wearing to what the tables are, cameras are in your face, all your bosses are video tapping you,” Macri said. “There are master culinary Jedi warriors looking right at you. You know that they know more than you know, so doing that kind of thing is pretty intense.”

When the smoke cleared, Macri made it through with a bronze medal, and a sudden itch to do it again.

Along with the medal, Macri came back to his kitchen with him a little more passion and drive for excellence. He knows his student diners aren’t really going to be judging him with the same intensity, but he’s excited to keep improving.

“I’m not going to have a student go ‘Excuse me Mr. Macri, I noticed your brunoise dice in this burrito is not enough,’” Macri said with a laugh. “But being in that world and being surrounded by your peers where it is a big deal, you want the best possible outcome coming back here kind of lights a fire. It’s lot of fun.”

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