In the center of the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, the Commons Cafe serves the staff, faculty and anyone lucky enough to venture inside. Don’t let its modest appearance fool you: This cafeteria boasts some great campus food options. A hidden figure works behind the scenes to prepare quality meals. His name is Dai Lien.
Chef Dai has been at UT for 25 years. He trained with the Culinary Institute of America and spent 14 years in the hotel business before joining the Forty Acres to run the Campus Club.
“Everything is history from there,” said Dai with a laugh.
At the Campus Club he prepared gourmet meals for staff and faculty members and catered events across campus. Dai’s talent didn’t go unnoticed. When the university built a brand-new hotel on campus, Dai was offered a choice: He could work for the hotel chain or stay with UT.
“So I decided, ‘You know what, I’ve been with UT for 14, 15 years already… I want to keep my tenure with UT,’ ” said Dai. “Luckily, I got transferred up here.”
At the Commons, Dai relies on his extensive experience to meet new goals.
“One thing challenging about working at the Commons is you get the same customer pretty much every day… so the challenge is to make things look different all the time. Otherwise, it’s not really enticing for you to come every day,” said Dai.
His team works to create unique menu items to attract customers. Each day has a specific theme assigned to it, and Dai lets his crew come up with whatever entree they want.
“If we allow the staff to get more creative, they get more ideas; they’re more motivated,” said Dai. “They feel like they’re having fun doing their job.”
Aside from keeping the Commons Cafe up and running, Chef Dai and his team also cater between 600 and 700 events a year all over campus. Chef Dai is highly requested.
“If you stand here and watch, in 15 minutes they can serve 400 people,” said Molly Anderson, assistant director at Commons Learning Center. “It’s truly impressive. And the quality is amazing.”
Chef Dai and his team also host special events to help their guests feel at home. They put on holiday meals, beer tastings, ice cream socials and more.
“We do all of those events just for people on campus to get together,” said Dai.
This may seem like a lot to handle, but Chef Dai’s team is more than used to it. Dai has quite a history with some of them; many of his staff members have been working with him since he first came to UT.
“Fortunately, half of our team came from the Campus Club,” said Dai. “They know exactly what needs to be done.”
Dai is quick to credit his UT colleagues for his success. He may run the Commons Cafe, but he regularly reminds people that he has a superb support system backing him.
“I’m very happy here,” said Dai. “We’ve got a very good team.”