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Top of the Line

Whitlow’s award is latest acknowledgement of the quality of BC Dining Services

Keze Whitlow won “Line Chef of the Year” honors. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 3, 2015

Boston College Dining Services cook Keze Whitlow has been passionate about cooking since she was a little girl, and that zeal has earned her the honor as the Massachusetts Restaurant Association 2015 “Line Chef of the Year.”

“I was in shock,” says Whitlow, who received the award at the Nov. 4 MRA Stars of the Industry Gala. “My mom was screaming, everybody was yelling in my ear, and I was just in shock. I was just happy that I didn’t have to make a speech or anything.”

The Stars of the Industry Awards recognize the best in food and beverage staff positions from across Massachusetts, and are based on a nomination process, not a cook-off. Whitlow went up against more than 300 other nominees from establishments like Davio’s, Legal Sea Foods, Union Café and Bar, Pizzeria Uno and Papagayo’s among others. One of the finalists Whitlow beat out was a sous chef from The Palm.

Whitlow’s award also is an achievement for BC: It’s the first time that any food service organization has won the same category two competitions in a row. Two years ago, McElroy Commons cook Marlon Mazier also won “Line Chef of the Year,” the first employee from a college or university to win this biennial statewide award.

While she might have found herself short of words at the awards gala, Whitlow has let her cooking and positive attitude do the talking during the five years she’s been serving diners at the Stuart Hall dining facility on Newton Campus.

“The nomination and award were so unexpected,” says Whitlow, who estimates she helps produce between 700 and 1,000 meals a night. “I come to work and do what I have to do. Cooking is my passion, so I just come and put my all into it. Even if I’m having a bad day, I still try to produce the best. You leave your problems at the door and pick them back up when you go back out – that’s what I always say.”

 “The nominating committee said they were all ready to go back to college when they were seeing the type of product that Keze was putting out,” says Massachusetts Restaurant Association President and CEO Bob Luz. “It breaks the stereotype of what everybody believes college dining is all about and the committee really thought that set her apart from the rest of the group.”

Also distinguishing Whitlow were the nominations that came not only from peers and supervisors, but from students and faculty. Luz says that spoke volumes to the committee, as did the fact that BCDS allows Whitlow to serve her own dish, “Keze’s Tapas”: pan-seared scallops over chorizo, drizzled with her secret sauce.

Dinh Phat (“John”) Mac was nominated for a People’s Choice Award in the Massachusetts Restaurant Association Stars of the Industry Awards.

“An organization as large as Boston College is now letting Keze take ownership in the kitchen and do her own brand of cooking,” says Luz. “Keze is allowed to go out and do her own thing and BC is marketing it as such.”

Ever the team player, the Randolph resident spreads the credit, much like she would a sauce on a favorite dish.

“It takes a village. One person can’t come in here and do it alone, so it’s always teamwork. The people who nominated me, I thank them for seeing something in me that I did not see in myself. I’m going to make sure I keep up my standards. ‘Ever to excel,’ I always say.”

Whitlow’s dedication extends beyond BCDS – she spends Saturdays at Newbury College, where she’s earning a degree in culinary management. Although it means she’s “always in chef’s clothes,” Whitlow says cooking helps her keep a positive mindset, no matter what happens during the day.

“I love doing it no matter what. So that keeps me going. And I have a son at home to think about. I need to put on a positive attitude for him. I just want to be in the kitchen, being able to create, making people happy with food.”

Whitlow wasn’t the only BCDS employee to impress the MRA’s judges. Dinh Phat (“John”) Mac, a stock distribution worker with Catering Services, was nominated for the People’s Choice Award.  

“I didn’t expect it,” says the nine-year BCDS veteran of his nomination. “It was a little bit overwhelming, and quite an honor. I want to thank everybody who voted for me.”

Mac arrives from his Malden home every day at 6 a.m. and is responsible for setting up events, making sure all the orders are correct and planning delivery routes.

“Johnny Mac is one of the calm and quiet forces in Catering,” says BCDS Associate Director for Food and Beverage Michael Kann. “From loading trucks on the dock to setting up breakfasts and lunches in many offices around campus, he keeps the high-paced Catering operation on pace and on time.”

Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services Pat Bando says the selection of two employees as Stars of the Industry finalists reflects well on BCDS.

“The technical and service-oriented skills of our team members certainly shine through in Keze and John. Our onsite food service operations are on par with commercial restaurants for food and service quality and we rely on our team members to accomplish this feat. Being the only University to achieve this recognition gives further distinction to these employees.”