What first strikes you when you meet John O’Shea is his down-to-earth, relaxed nature. He does, after all, head a kitchen charged with quenching the appetite of Brown’s hungry students, faculty, staff and visitors each day. In fact, it is his noticeable humbleness and dedication to the cooking team he works with that guide his leadership philosophy as the Executive Chef at Brown Dining. He takes pride in the people around him and nurturing their culinary development. Their remarkable teamwork, much of it behind the scenes, is what makes the fresh flavors of Brown Dining possible.
Each day may be structured around the traditional 3 meals, but John’s days are anything but typical. Creative meals, food preparation, staffing schedule changes and campus events ensure that there’s always a new twist. That these challenges remain transparent to customers and that the meals served retain their high quality are both testaments to John’s effectiveness at the helm of Brown Dining’s food production. Nowadays he spends a lot of his time working out logistics, and admittedly he wishes he were able to spend more time in the kitchen. But thanks to Brown Dining’s relaxed atmosphere, he can find himself taking on the roles of manager, cook and mentor over the course of any given day.
In fact, he relishes those moments when he can teach new cooks some tricks of the trade and help them improve their technique. The mutual respect he develops with members of the Brown Dining cooking team is ever rewarding, as he watches previously inexperienced individuals grow into confident, masterful chefs. He goes out of his way to make educational materials available to all cooks. He hopes they see them as an opportunity to become comfortable with new ingredients and flavors. Being in the kitchen all day is hard work, and the cooking team’s appreciation for their art, is reinforced by John’s encouragement for them to explore their culinary passions. John is also proud of Brown Dining’s aim to help staff further their education – all staff members are given the opportunity to take classes.
John’s passion for the people behind the food guides his community work outside the kitchen as well. He has organized scholarship awards for rising culinary stars in Rhode Island, giving them expanded opportunities to further their educations. Through the American Culinary Federation, he has also helped to coordinate and prepare benefit dinners for the Macaulay House in South Providence.
John has noticed that students today demand increased variety at the dining halls. The growth in the popularity of global cuisine has led to an exponential increase in flavors. Brown Dining also now better caters to those who adhere to Kosher, Halal and vegan diets. In addition, the food crafted in Brown Dining kitchens is more health-conscious and fresher than ever before, mirroring significant trends towards reduced red meat consumption and the growing popularity of farm-to-cafeteria programs like Community Harvest. Some large kitchens might struggle to accommodate all of these changes, but if it’s any sign of Brown Dining’s success, the number of students on meal plans is now at an all-time high. It’s a testament to the quality of the food and the production team’s spirited service, and it reflects on the dedication of everyone, from John down. John also doesn’t fail to mention his delight that the Brown Dining kitchen boasts its own bakeshop and butcher, rarities among other colleges’ dining operations.
Despite his love for cooking, when John goes home for the day the last place you’ll find him is in a kitchen. You can catch him on the side of the field during baseball season. It’s his seventh year coaching in Cranston, R.I. And the rest of the time he’s too busy being Dad -- shuffling his son and daughter between sports practices and making sure they stay on top of their classes. It can be a challenge for a parent to take an active role in his teenagers’ lives, but he cannot hide his pride in being there to watch them excel. Rhode Island is a great place to grow up, John declares. He himself is a native but for his first year of life in Brunswick, Maine.
John started as a food service worker at Brown Dining in 1976. He hasn’t forgotten the distinguished journey as he became a cook's helper, a cook, a second cook, a first cook, a production manager, and finally the Executive Chef:
“What motivates me as a Chef is helping my team, seeing them grow as they move through the ranks to become leaders in the culinary field.”