Home sweet home cooking

It’s been 22 years. Twenty-two years of cooking from scratch, creating original recipes, hanging out with his brothers and “shaping the young minds” of the University’s Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity.

For Jerry Edwards, Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity House Chef, driving through 14 stoplights to make it on time to work isn’t just for the job; it’s for spending time in his second home.

“I’ve been a chef for 52 years,” Edwards said. “I’ve cooked in fancy, fancy, fancy restaurants. I know the dietary end of it. So just feeding them is only a little bit of it; feeding them to where they stay healthy and giving them a balanced diet, that’s the other part.”

Before Edwards and his wife, Shirley, who works alongside him, took jobs at the fraternity house, they owned a little sandwich shop, The Lite Bite, in Mattoon, Ill.

“I was dying,” he said. “Not physically, but I was working too hard. So I wanted out.”

After a purveyor suggested that the couple look into working at fraternity and sorority houses, they negotiated their salaries and signed paperwork to become subcontractors for the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity House. Since then, the couple has driven 23 miles every Monday through Friday from Tuscola, Ill., to make it into the kitchen by 9 a.m.

The men who live in the fraternity house sign a contract for 10 meals a week, or two meals per day, but because Edwards cooks all of the meals from scratch, he said he is able to leave enough room in the budget to provide bagels, waffles, cereal and other breakfast items for a third meal.

“This is my family. I am a Lambda Chi member,” Edwards said, as he pulled out his initiation card and pointed to his member number in the house: 1735. “I am an alumnus of Lambda Chi, these are my brothers, and I gotta take care of them.”

This is a sentiment that Joey Feinberg, junior in LAS, said he sees in Edwards as well.

“Jerry is one of the most passionate people I know,” Feinberg said. “He cares about every one of us in the house and it shows by the way he acts around us.”

Edwards sees his role in the kitchen as more than just a chef, but a mentor for the men when they need it.

“I can help them in life. I’ve had guys that come in here and didn’t know what they wanted out of life,” he said. “And they talk to Shirley and me like we’re their parents, and we can kind of help mold their lives.”

A few years ago, Edwards said he was talking to a member who was failing all of his classes and wanted to quit school. It was the student’s junior year, and he didn’t think he was going anywhere in life. After a conversation with Edwards and his wife, the couple persuaded him to register for summer school, catch up and return to the University for the following year.

The next year, the student came back for his senior year and graduated with a diploma from the University.

“That’s why we’re here. Not only to feed them, but to give them parental advice, if they want it,” Edwards said. “My daughter tells me this is God’s calling for me and my wife.”

Edwards said his love of cooking started early in life. Ever since he was about 15 or 16-years-old, hanging out in the kitchen with “Mama,” he knew he wanted to be a chef. But after a motorcycle accident left doctors questioning whether he’d be able to walk again, he feared his culinary career was over.

“I’d been to culinary arts school and graduated, but since I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t be a chef,” he said. “So I said I’ll become a CPA (certified public accountant); I could do that in a wheelchair.”

He received a bookkeeping degree, but his passion for cooking overcame the hardships he faced due to the accident, and once he was able to walk again, he decided to go back to developing his culinary skills.

“I just told them I was gonna do it one way or the other,” he said. “Told them they were liars, and I was gonna walk.”

Edwards said learning from others in his field became essential, and he spent a few months in Florida, Colorado, California and other states to acquire knowledge from a variety of chefs.

“If you go to chef school, it teaches you basic knowledge out of a book,” he said. “It’s like trying to learn how to swim where there’s no water. You can read all the books you wanna read, but until you get in the water, you don’t know how to swim. It’s exactly the same way with a chef.”

Edwards learned 19 different sauce recipes from a chef in Colorado. He learned how to make crepes, flounder and escargot from a German chef and all there was to know about seafood from a chef in Florida.

It was while he worked as the executive chef for a seafood restaurant in Florida, Edwards met Shirley.

“Thirty-three years it’s been,” he said. “She’s a blessing, an angel.”

The restaurant where Edwards originally worked was close to filing bankruptcy, and he was hired to “straighten the place out.” He was able to help out the restaurant, and soon he found that he needed more hands in the kitchen. Shirley responded to an advertisement in the paper, and Edwards said it was the answer to his prayers.

“I was praying to God every day, ‘Send me somebody who could take care of me,’” he said. “And the good Lord gave me her. And I’ve been thankful ever since.”

Shirley said she accepted the job offer at a time in her life when she was down on her luck. She had just ended an abusive relationship with her ex-husband, and the people who took her in were not treating her nicely.

“Jerry helped me learn things that I did not know,” she said. “I was in a shell, and he broke that shell. People used to talk me down and tell me I was stupid, so I believed it. He took me out of that shell. Now I stand up for myself, before I never did.”

In 33 years, Shirley and Edwards claim they have never had an argument. Though they don’t have any children together, between them they have eight children, 23 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

In four months, Edwards will be 70 years old. But he doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon.

“When I retire, you’ll find me dead on that orange mat over there,” he said, as he pointed to an orange mat underneath the stove in the kitchen. “If the good lord gets me out of bed and gets me here, I’ll work. Because I have fun with these guys.”

This year, Edwards received an email from a 2002 alumnus whose wife had just given birth to a daughter. In Edwards’ private room, there are two walls full of emails and other artifacts that the men of the fraternity have sent him over the years.

“We all love Jerry,” Feinberg said. “It’s great to come down to the kitchen everyday and see such a friendly face.”

As rewarding as the work is for Edwards, he said graduation is the hardest part, as he hates seeing the members leave. Edwards believes the work he has put into the house is worth it if he has made an impact on at least one of the members’ lives.

“You can’t save everybody, you know what I mean?” he said. “But if you save one from going down the wrong road, the road of destruction, it’s worth it. It’s worth the trip.”

Alice can be reached at [email protected]