Chef Tom Schraa first saw an ad for a job with this university’s catering department in the newspaper. After years of working at restaurants in Dallas, Miami, Chicago and Washington, the idea of working five days a week was appealing.
Seventeen years later, Schraa has found himself working most weekends and some 12-hour days as executive chef for Good Tidings. He took over the job in September, after working with Good Tidings for years in various positions.
“I have learned over the course of my career that you couldn’t take me out of here,” he said. “It’s what I love to do and I’ve always done it.”
Growing up in Springfield, Virginia, Schraa said he was always interested in cooking and would often stop playing just to watch the cooking show Galloping Gourmet.
At age 18, he began his professional career as an apprentice for chef Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle at Le Lion d’Or Restaurant in Washington.
“Back then they could yell, they could scream, and they smoked, and they drank and they did all kinds of crazy stuff,” he said of the kitchen staff. “But they taught me and I learned their craft. They just taught this little kid how to do things.”
In February 1999, Schraa was hired as a sous chef for Good Tidings, which managed the campus dining halls, in addition to providing catering services, and operated out of what used to be Denton Dining Hall, now 251 North.
As the campus continued to grow, Good Tidings moved to Stamp Student Union, where Schraa’s tiny office is nestled in a commissary kitchen.
“There’s been a crane on campus somewhere ever since the day I’ve started,” Schraa said. “They’re always doing something here, so they’re always building new venues for us to cater at.”
Good Tidings operates five major kitchens on the campus: the commissary kitchen in Stamp, a full-service kitchen at the president’s house, Xfinity Center, Tyser Tower at Maryland Stadium and the Green Tidings Food Truck that debuted in 2013.
Schraa is in the process of developing menus for Green Tidings when it reopens in March.
“Within the next week or two I’ll have it all solidified,” he said. “We change the menu every two weeks, so I have the ability to adjust if I want to change.”
As part of Dining Services’ Sustainable Food Commitment, Green Tidings is aiming to serve dishes made up of at least 20 percent sustainable food by 2020. Schraa works closely with the university’s Terp Farm program to bring produce grown at the Upper Marlboro facility to the food truck.
“When you can get something that fresh from the farm and then feature it on our truck, it’s like you’re in heaven,” he said.
He said he particularly likes using the tomatoes grown at Terp Farm in salsa and sauces.
Schraa also placed second at the National Association of College and University Food Services competition in Baltimore in 2014. Schraa said he competes in culinary contests frequently to evaluate himself as a chef.
“You put yourself out there to be criticized and judged. … It’s that adrenaline rush that you get and you’re just happy that you did it and it’s done,” he said.
Schraa said that even after almost two decades, the long shifts and late hours don’t get old.
“It’s just a passion,” he said. “I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t here.”