by Manisha Sriram
It is 4:45 p.m., and Dennis Marquardt anxiously waits for the oven to beep so he can take out the brown basmati rice and prepare the rest of the meal. Dinner tonight is typed and printed out on the menu beside the kitchen door: mixed greens salad, tofu and vegetable soup, basmati rice, salmon and one of his many famous dessert recipes. He slowly rubs his grey beard, thinking of what he should get to next.
Tonight is an important night for Marquardt, the chef of UC Irvine’s Pi Beta Phi sorority house, because he is responsible for cooking for 150 girls. It is recruitment week and the girls have invited potential new sisters for dinner. Marquardt and the girls are hoping to leave a lasting impression.
“This is more pressure than I had hoped for,” says Marquardt under his breath. He softly hums along to the classic rock playing on his radio in the background, trying to remain calm as he wipes down the white kitchen countertops.
5 p.m. — Marquardt shuffles to the industrial-sized fridge covering the entire wall and takes out the salad he had prepared earlier that afternoon. He searches around for something else, but standing at six-foot-two, he is forced to crouch down. He finds what he’s been looking for: the Olive Garden dressing.
He adds the final touches of Olive Garden dressing and tops the salad off with a can of fresh olives. Meanwhile, the tofu and vegetable noodle soup boils on the slow-burning stove, which he had begun making at 11 a.m. that day.
The small kitchen in the Pi Phi house has one oven, an electric stove and one small convection oven. A large, heavy-duty stainless steel refrigerator stores all of Marquardt’s groceries, and several white cabinets line the walls with various cooking utensils and powders. There’s no air conditioning, so Marquardt is forced to rely on his two small countertop fans.
But after working here for 16 years as UCI’s only sorority house chef, Marquardt now knows his kitchen well, and he knows how to make do with it.
5:10 p.m. — the large tray of rice comes out and six slabs of salmon immediately go in. The remaining three slabs of salmon are forced to go in his back-up convection oven. Before he puts them inside to bake, he dresses the salmon with basil leaves to soak up the oil.
5:25 p.m. — the convection oven beeps ready, just as Marquardt starts taking out the salmon from the main oven. He steps over to the large, eight-foot table in the living room with the trays of salmon, and slowly moves the rest of the food over to the table.
“I did it,” he proudly reminds himself.
He sets the printed dinner menu at the head of the table which states which options are vegan and which have meat, and leaves a pumpkin cake he had prepared earlier that morning on the kitchen counter with a mini sign reading, “Enjoy!” He packs his belongings together, and promptly strides out of the living room door at 5:32 p.m.
“Thank you, Dennis!” the girls say from the living room.
Marquardt provides the 26 girls that live in the Pi Phi house nine meals per week, and every Monday night he cooks for the entire chapter at their weekly meetings, which consist of around 130 girls.
In Marquardt’s kitchen, dozens of post-it notes always cover his cabinets. “Kale salad was delicious,” reads one from the week before. “Loved the dumplings!” “Mac n’ cheese is my favorite!”
There are several reasons as to why Marquardt loves his job. He’s his own boss here, and his relationship with the girls is strong.
“Also, the meals I make bring them together at the dining table, where they engage in conversation. And nowadays, it’s hard to find that.”
Marquardt looks to fulfill his life in different aspects, and finds that through music. During this free time, he turns to a brotherhood of his own called Men Alive, an Orange County gay men’s show chorus.
“Music helps me through tough days on the job,” he says.
Marquardt gathers with his 140 brothers twice a week, paying dues to be a part of the organization — similar to what the Pi Phi girls do. He changes from his usual kitchen-proof T-shirt and jeans garb to a spruced-up button up, and sits with his friends in the large hall, awaiting rehearsal.
The men, ranging from 20 to 80 years old, all gather and begin with some shoulder rubs. Then they start doing vocal exercises and split into bass-baritones and tenors to practice separately. Marquardt sings in the lower-bass section.
The show chorus rehearses the latest number from the upcoming show. At every practice session, Director Bob Gunn stands at the front on a pedestal, leading the chorus, with pianist and Grammy-winning Joe Hogue by his side.
Men Alive’s upcoming show, “We Are Family,” is composed of many personal stories from the chorus members. Modern pop songs are included in the shows, such as “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Many of the song lyrics are slightly altered to add a gay twist.
Rehearsals are taken seriously, and Marquardt is sometimes forced to bring his homework to work. Closer to showtime, he works in the kitchen with earphones in, singing along to lyrics he is required to memorize.