Climbing the steps of Brody Square Dining Hall, the aroma of fresh-baked pizza dough and melty cheese is unmistakable. Passing through the entrance, the sizzling of sautéing vegetables and the faint clink of utensils can be heard. As patrons weave through the expansive dining hall, MSU Culinary Services team members are hard at work perfecting custom lunch orders, restocking the salad bar with leafy green spinach, arranging warm chocolate chip cookies on a serving tray and wiping down tables to provide the quality dining experience MSU students and the East Lansing community have come to expect at Brody Square.
Ashlee Sanders, student cook supervisor and five year Brody Square veteran, surveys the floor. While the MSU senior may now refer to the dining hall as her second home, a career in culinary services was not part of her original plan.
“I was pre-nursing until sophomore year when I switched to interdisciplinary studies with a health and society cognate with a business minor,” Sanders says. “Yes, it is a very long title.”
Sanders started working at Brody as a level one team member — or a general kitchen worker. It wasn’t long after she started when Chef Jonathan Hughes, full-time sous chef at Brody, noticed her talent and her dedication to the job.
“Chef Jonathan recommended me to go for the student cook promotion,” Sanders says, adding that she believes he saw an opportunity for her to become an even more valuable asset to the team. Already enjoying the work she was doing at Brody, she took the chance and scored the promotion.
It was around this time Sanders recognized, though she loved the profession of nursing, her true passion was in food and the dream of owning her own restaurant someday.
“As I got more involved, I realized I loved talking to people,” she says. “And when I would cook food here, and people liked it, I would get this sense of pride I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
That love continued to grow, and Sanders realized she needed to change her major to something that could help her transition into food management. Her switch to a health and society concentration allowed her to focus on the social, behavioral and economic determinants of health.
Maggie Lazzell, MSU marketing graduate student and Sanders’ best friend, says a part of the reason she switched her major may be more sentimental — having to do with her grandmother, who raised Sanders and holds a special place in her heart.
“Ashlee has always wanted to open a diner and name it after her late grandmother, Dixie,” Lazzell says. “When she recognized this, she changed her major and decided to stay at Brody to learn all she could.”
The friends met while both employed at Brody Square, and Lazzell says they spent countless hours working, talking and fostering a friendship.
Embracing her new role, Sanders dove into her responsibilities and tried to absorb as many learning opportunities as she could.
This dedication did not go unnoticed. Fellow Student Cook Supervisor Mary Nguyen says of Sanders’ work ethic, “She walks in every day with a positive attitude, ready to give the best Spartan experience possible.”
Sanders’ former Brody Square mentor, Alexis Clark, says, “She is a natural leader and isn’t ashamed to get done what needs to get done.”
Clark explains she wanted to mentor Sanders because she knew she had the potential to be an amazing asset at Brody.
“She had and has so much potential in this field. So, I wanted to make sure I trained her properly so she could learn all that she needed to from Brody,” Clark says.
Sanders’ reputation of dedication and hard work spread throughout the Division of Residential and Hospitality Services. Culinary Services Communication Manager Leah Ball explains: “We hold our annual Culinary Throwdown against the chefs at the University of Michigan. This year, Ashlee competed in a timed-cooking challenge where she was presented with mysterious ingredients. Ashlee was a finalist, and our Corporate Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski, knowing of her reputation, noticed her talent and asked her to be on the team.” Sanders’ role was to assist in the preparation, cooking and presentation of the team’s dish, which was an entrée consisting of pork, squash and balsamic-soaked blueberries.
“I was a little nervous for the experience, like anyone would be,” Sanders says. “But I was more excited to be a part of the Spartan team.”
Sanders commends her education at Brody Square for her ability to calm her nerves. “Brody has taught me so much, from cooking to just plain life skills,” she says. “Skills that have really prepared me for a lot of things.”
She explains her work experience and interactions with colleagues at Brody Square enhanced her cooking, management, communication and supervisory skills.
After vigorous competition at the Culinary Throwdown, the Spartan chefs came in second by only a few points.
Sanders laughs. “The judges were all Wolverines,” she says. “I mean, let’s think about this for a second!”
Despite the loss, Sanders wouldn’t change a thing.
“I had a really great time at the event. The campus was beautiful, and it was great working with Chefs Jason [Strotheide], Kurt and Ethan [Rutherford]. Although we lost, the positive experience outweighed everything else.”
As her MSU experience rounds its last lap around the Spartan academic track, Sanders follows the same mentality she did for the Culinary Throwdown when looking at her time at Brody Square.
“Like any job, it hasn’t always been sunshine and roses, but I couldn’t have asked for a better job. The things I learned here are invaluable and will ensure my success in the future,” she says.
That future? The near-Spartan alumna is hoping to work as a restaurant manager after graduation and continue to hone the skills that will aid her in accomplishing her goals.
“Long-term, I want to open a restaurant, maybe even a chain of restaurants, and I know I can because of Brody.”