It took me five months to solidify an interview with the Delta Gamma sorority head cook Pat McDaniel, and only 45 minutes to get kicked out of his kitchen because of a simple discussion of politics.
Stories of this hilarious, jolly man who always has something to say from behind the counter and cooks for over 100 sorority girls made their way to me from my friend Mollie who resided in the DG house last year. When I first approached Pat the Chef (he prefers going by his first name) about coordinating an interview in May, I was with loose tongue and referred to my good friend as a dork. Pat saw nothing but poor rhetoric and harsh bravado in me and casted me away as if I were last week’s potato salad. It wasn’t until I reentered his kitchen months later with text evidence of an apology to Mollie while sporting a hand-crafted sign that read “dork” stuck on my forehead, that Pat agreed to speak with me about his life. “You don’t mess with family,” he says to me while he prepared dinner. “And I think you know that.”
He’s a peculiar man whose accent changes with the context of conversation. Moments of southern twang sneak their way into his voice as he retells a story that sounds like it’s been said countless times before, but as he leans in to tell me his wife’s name, the drawl instantly disappears and what’s left behind is a sunken tone that promises truth, respect and love. His glasses rest on the middle of nose so he can read the fine print and pinch the right amount of salt, but as he looks into your eyes, his face recalls that of the subtle beauty in a grandfather’s weathered grin. At his current height, he won’t have to duck while entering a plane and his salt and peppered beard neatly wraps around the borders of his face. The way he flips between joyful banter and serious disclosure can switch on like an oven light but he never changes the feelings he has for the people he is currently cooking garlic bread for.
“I just love what I’m doing. The girls are great to me,” he said earnestly. “They’re like my own kids and I treat them like my own kids, you know? When I can give them good solid advice, I give them good solid advice. I don’t rag at them, I don’t hard ball them, you know? I love these girls. These girls are like my own kids.”
Pat McDaniel was born in Germany in 1953. “My dad was a military man and I was born in a military base in the town of Heidelberg, Germany.”
The youngest of seven brothers, Pat can tell you his brother’s names in a flash: Sam, David, Robert, Jerry, Roy, himself and Tim. His father served as a repeated source of inspiration for Pat both in the kitchen and anywhere else.
“He was the kind of man that would give his shirt off his back for somebody. As long, as they treated him right,” Pat said of his father. “And when they didn’t treat him right, he wouldn’t have the first thing to do with them. And that’s basically the way most of my brothers are. We learned a lot from my dad and a lot from my mom and a lot from life.”
“He (his father) owned many different businesses. He was an entrepreneur and my parents owned a bakery. We used to sell doughnuts for 7 cents a piece or 75 cents a baker’s dozen,” Pat said.
“My dad was … He did everything from scratch. That’s what makes me do everything pretty much from scratch here. Because if you can do a product that is better doing it from scratch, you’re better off doing it. We’ve become a country eating too many box this and box that and canned this and canned that. I try to do everything we possibly can do here at the sorority as fresh as we possibly can.”
And his words mix well with his actions. His ribs, especially his sauce, drip with flavor. Enough so that a spill on your shirt only signifies that you can savor it longer.
His success in baking and cooking simply lies in the first bite. “I realized I was good at what I did in 1971 because I had people telling me that I was good at what I did.”
In 1967, the 14-year-old Pat that was baking doughnuts in his father’s bakery grew and simmered through multiple positions in multiple kitchens. Throughout the 1970s, he worked at a state mental hospital where he served 1,200 mouths a meal three times a day and after that, he worked at a California prison where he served 3,000. Pat enjoyed the 1980s with a restaurant he opened called All-American Taco in Atascadero, Calif., which was famous for the best burgers in town. 1994 was the year Pat turned his back on a successful restaurant and the state of California and moved to Eugene where he began working in college kitchens before connecting with Delta Gamma in 2010.
“The (DG) house director was a good friend of my sister-in-law and was needing to find somebody to cook for the place because they had problems with cooks, which it typical. Usually cooks are drunks or they’re temperamental or they’re a pain in the butt,” he said.
As Pat says his last descriptor for cooks, his tone lightly flows up signifying as though there’s a past behind his words and he’s had to work closely with these types of cooks. Possibly, working as close as to sharing the same apron.
If you ask Pat when was the moment he knew his wife Debbie was the woman for him, his reply is scattered by laughter, “When I said I do!” After he quickly cools down, he speaks honestly about the person who he classifies as his best friend.
“I can tell my wife anything I want. I don’t have to go find some guy to go confide in or anything else. If I want to tell my wife something I did when I was a rotten teenager, I can do that. And she does not look any different upon me if I did. And that’s what makes her and I as a couple perfect for one another. But like I said, my wife has been my best friend for a long, long time.”
A marriage of 40 years isn’t crafted without a wart or two popping through but Pat acknowledges his past troubles and they only intensified his family’s bond.
“She (Debbie) had numerous times she had reason to leave me and she didn’t — because she’s that good of woman. And I’m just happy as heck that she didn’t because I’d probably be dead now.”
His tone switches again, this time he ends words with a heavy yank.
“I was a drunk. I drank alcohol like it was water. Let’s put it this way, college guys didn’t have anything over me as far as drinking. I’m telling you what, up until 1992 I drank and drank and drank. That was my thing. I didn’t know how to enjoy myself without drinking and partying. To me, that’s the way I perceived fun. I didn’t find out until 1992 that you could have fun without all that junk.”
My friend Mollie — who once lived in the DG house that stands with four white pillars proudly on Alder Street — tells me that Pat’s cooking is heavy on the love and even heavier on the flavor.
“The girls in this house love what I do but they sometimes have the tendency to tell me that I shouldn’t cook so many desserts,” Pat said. “They tell me, ‘My God! When I first came here I could fit in my pants’ and I tell them (his voice changes again into a straight talk, you know he’s said this before) I love to see a girl with a little meat on her bones.’” We laugh together before Pat notices someone behind me.
“We like healthy women, right Makenna?” Asks Pat.
A young DG is grabbing strawberries out of a bowl near the kitchen. “Right,” she says as if it came equipped with an ‘Oh Pat, what are you up to now?’ kind of tone.
“That’s right!” says Pat the Chef with an excited, southern laugh.