By Grant Whittington
It’s Thursday night and students are piling into the Denton community to wait in line for the university’s 251 North. Students walk in to the all-you-care-to-eat diner to be greeted by options including cheeseburgers, pasta, pizza, salads, and themed cuisines, all conceptualized by Rob Fahey, executive chef and general manager.
“I think he’s just terrific,” Bart Hipple, associate director of communication for Dining Services, said. “He’s got a really good sense of flavor and a great menu.”
Fahey, originally from East Saint Louis, Illinois, started at the university four years ago. He stumbled upon the job opening after helping his friend look for a new job as a chef. Prior, Fahey graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and endured a 20-year career as a chef at Hyatt Hotels, most recently in Baltimore.
“I still have a heart for Hyatt, but the hours were too much,” Fahey said. “I was working six days a week and in 12 hour shifts.”
Although the location changed from Hyatt to the university, many of his responsibilities remained the same. Fahey oversees the commissary, which cleans and inspects every piece of produce that is distributed at the university, supplies food to the business school and engineering school upon request, creates a tasteful yet unique menu for 251 North and manages the crew of 128 employees in the 251 building.
“Chef Rob’s been really helpful with any questions I’ve had,” said sophomore 251 employee Alistair Garden. “He runs a tight ship and looks after his employees.”
The chef, credits his staff for always being open-minded and willing to try new things in a workplace that changes its menu options weekly.
“My guys never say no to me,” Fahey said. “They’re always open to new things.”
Fahey believes in forgiveness and second chances in the diner. In his four years of being executive chef on the campus, he’s only written up two people and has yet to fire an employee.
“We grow from our mistakes,” he said. “If you make a mistake, you learn from it.”
The quality of food has improved greatly on campus since Fahey assumed his position at the university. There used to be nothing but complaints that the diner food was repetitive, but now the diners have a quality chef who oversees everything and does a great job, Fahey said. He also credits the university for the food improvements.
“All of the cooks practice and we have set up high expectations,” Fahey said. “It’s a real commitment from Maryland.”
251 is very transparent regarding how the cooks prepare the food, utilizing a Subway-esque, cook-right-in-front-of-you approach. The specialty meat is cut, hamburgers are grilled and pizza is sliced as the students and customers watch, giving them a sense that the food is prepared fresh.
“The premise is all food is made fresh and right in front of the students and customers,” Fahey said.
251 North remains one of the most popular dining options at Maryland, with students on a traditional meal plan living on North Campus receiving one punch a week while students on South Campus get the experience four times a semester.
With students flooding into 251 on the weeknights, it would be easy for them to forget all the hard work put into making the food, but many students pay respect to the chef’s work.
“I love what we do here. A kid walked by the other day and said ‘thank you,’” Fahey said. “That’s what it’s all about.”