Shawn Rockwell pushes his brown hair beneath his dark grey chef cap and turns his eyes towards the line of students before him who are avidly avoiding eye contact. The students of Covenant College seem indifferent to the beads of sweat that come with the post of standing over a set of burners for hours on end. But Rockwell is set on breaking through the barrier of the sneeze guard that stands between cook and consumer.
“How are you guys doing today?” He has a kind, clear speech—attributed to his West Coast upbringing. The closest student mutters something through a shy smile, suddenly growing more attentive to the dish Rockwell is preparing for him. Rockwell’s movements become more intentional and are, at times, paired with an explanation for the dish’s assembly. His engagement with the student has not only invited conversation, but has also welcomed a stranger to join in on his craft.
Food has served as Rockwell’s medium for connecting with others since he was 9 years old. Rockwell’s first time over the stove was under the instruction of his single mother. He was trained to prepare dishes like Hamburger Helper so that he and his younger brother would be equipped to eat during her double work shifts as a travel agent and waitress.
Rockwell quickly labels this woman as his deepest source of influence. “My mom was such a hard worker, doing everything she could to provide for me and my little brother” he said.
He explains that her contagious value for intentional work is what brought Shawn to Covenant College in January 2018, and further, her very spirit was reflected in his own work ethic, leading to a promotion to part-time management 8 months later in September 2018.
Rockwell’s responsibilities in his management role stretch from keeping track of expiration dates to helping with the dishes alongside the interns.
But Rockwell’s favorite thing to do is to help out up front. “I just tell kids to have a good night and it seems like when I acknowledge them, they are more likely to give a review or engage with the staff, but if you don’t say anything, they will just walk out.”
Another aspect of the job requires Rockwell to get a sense for the favorite dishes. The student body changes every year and so does the food that is most popular: “some classes like pork, or salad—others are just big eaters.”
On Rockwell’s rounds through the dining hall, he surveys the empty trays on buffet lines and keeps track of which food items were most popular. Rockwell will also stand by the dish pit and ask students how they liked the food. Not only does he want to know their opinion on the dishes offered that day, but he also likes to keep an eye on the plates they set on the conveyor belt that carries dishes behind the kitchen to be washed.
“Sometimes it seems weird because there will be a whole plate of food on the conveyor belt. You see a lot of that. But I get it, y’know sometimes you’re just not as hungry as you thought you would be. But it’s hard for us to keep all of the stations full, so there is a lot of waste when all we have to figure out how much food to prepare is just based off of last year’s numbers.”
Rockwell’s hope is to install a sort of feedback system where students can offer suggestions for new dishes or vote on which meals have been their favorites. He wants to see more honest conversation between students and staff in order to provide the best experience for everyone.
The marriage between food and intentionality has not been evident only in Rockwell’s time at Covenant College. Prior to his hiring in January, he had worked in Washington state at two different nursing homes before moving with his wife to Alabama in 2018. Rockwell draws on his experience from one particular nursing home called Brookdale.
“For a lot of people this was the last place they’d be staying. So I wanted to make them feel special, feel seen. I would cater the food in a specific way if they asked for it or if their mom had made the dish a certain way, I would try to recreate it.”
There was one particular memory Rockwell had of an older woman who once mentioned a favorite childhood tradition, “This woman told me her mom made her two blueberry muffins every Saturday morning when she was a girl. So when I heard that story, every Saturday that woman would get two blueberry muffins. No one else did. This was special for her, and I wanted her to feel seen. And man, her face would just light up every time.”
Rockwell speaks fondly of his time working in front of others because he can see how much his intentionality changes their interactions with him and even improves the person’s day.
“That’s been one of my favorite parts about working at Covenant” Rockwell mused, “when people treat me like I’m one of their friends and they notice me or ask me questions, that makes my day better too.”
Rockwell recalled a particular interaction with a student who approached him once his promotion had become common-knowledge. “This kid came up to me and said he had been talking with his roommate the night before about my promotion. They were happy for me but were upset because they thought this would mean that I couldn’t work on the Create station anymore and so they told me it wasn’t a good idea to take the job.”
Rockwell’s value of engagement and intentionality has influenced the way he views others, but its impact is greatest on his love of cooking. “People always say that the secret ingredient is love, right? But it’s true! You can give two people the same ingredients for a taco and they can create two completely different tacos. It’s about how you stir the meat, cook it—it matters if you care.”
For Rockwell, it is extremely important to build community around quality food. Not only does food offer an excellent platform for conversation, but the care he puts into its making and the attention he shows its receiver are vital in Rockwell’s efforts to make people feel seen.