Capitol cafeteria: Where culinary interns grill while lawmakers deal
She's unmistakable around the grill, calling out orders to a crew of cooks and wandering out near the salad bar to chat with customers during the lunch rush at Utah's Capitol.
"What for you, sweetie?" Kenya Coleman asked in a singsong voice to a woman who looked over the offerings in the cafeteria. Cheryl Parkinson, a teacher who came to the Capitol on Friday to lobby for education bills, finally settled on sloppy Joes. So did two Utah Highway Patrol troopers who were sold on Coleman's creation through a confluence of charm, hunger and raving endorsements from a few people lined up in front of them.
"I made that," Coleman said, her voice rising above the slap of spatulas on the grill and the chatter of a crowd milling around a salad bar. She turned and, a few minutes later, was chasing down Bec Rasmussen, an intern for House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig.
Coleman waved to her with a small object in her hand.
"Hey, mama," Coleman called out. "Did you lose your phone?"
Rasmussen caught her breath, smiled and grabbed the phone.
"You saved my day," she told Coleman.
"Yeah," Coleman replied before dashing into the cooking area to make sure new batches of french fries and tater tots were being prepared for the oncoming crush of diners.
All of that happened in five minutes. For the 37-year-old who starts her day at 3:30 a.m. on a bus from Roy and works until the gates close in the Capitol cafeteria at 2:30 p.m., she'll keep that pace up through three rushes a day, five days a week.
Aaron Lee, a cook for three years at the Capitol, said the kitchen simply doesn't run without her.
"We'd be lost," he said.
Partners • The Salt Lake Community College Culinary Institute and the Utah Capitol have been partners for three years after Utah Capitol Preservation Board Executive Director Allyson Gamble sought to replace Eurest a large, national food-service provider in 2010 after it was determined the annual $80,000 budget to retain its services was too costly.
Gamble said she thought there might be an opportunity to cut the cost by having interns at the institute work toward graduating by working 1,000 hours and getting professional experience. The result of the partnership now in its third year is an exchange in which the students learning the craft get to use the Capitol kitchen rent-free and the Capitol isn't charged for the services provided by the Culinary Institute.
Meghan Krenicky, operations manager for the Capitol Complex at Salt Lake Community College, said to keep the catering and kitchen running, they staff between 32 and 100 students, depending on the volume of orders.
The partnership has worked well enough that the board signed a contract with the institute that runs through 2016.
Lawmakers last week honored the cooking crew in both the House and Senate chambers as they stood in the gallery with Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, singling out Coleman for making "me the best Reuben sandwich known."
Krenicky said it was the first time the cooking crew had ever been honored in the Capitol and wasn't surprised Coleman drew the attention.
"She's got a really fun personality," Krenicky said. "On days she's not here, she is missed desperately. She really gets the team excited and ready to go and gets them moving. She's great with the school kids that come through and knows how to joke around with them. When she's not there, it's just quiet and has a different feel."
On Huntsman's orders • Krenicky said Coleman came as a requirement by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman. She worked for Eurest, but when the state switched contractors, Huntsman said she had to be part of the team.
Coleman smiled at the memory of Huntsman. "I fed him peanut butter sandwiches without the crusts," she said.
Coleman knows the orders for many who roll through the 45-day session. For Dale Cox, president of the Utah AFL-CIO, it's sloppy Joes. Gun lobbyist Clark Aposhian loves the taco salad. She said Gov. Gary Herbert likes mixed tater tots, cheeseburger and fries.
By the time she gets home, Coleman said she's usually asleep by 8 p.m. unless she takes time out to go bowling, her favorite activity.
"Sometimes we have school buses and kids coming in they wear me out so bad, I don't want to take a nap when I get home, but I do," she said with a laugh. "I just sit on the couch and fall right asleep."
But then it's back up and at the Capitol at 5:45 a.m. making sausage and hash browns for the 8 a.m. rush.
Five days a week hard-selling lemon chicken to indecisive faces or joking with lawmakers and smiling. Always smiling.
"I just try to throw out that spirit and spark," she said. "And hope it catches."
By the numbers
What's consumed in the 45-day legislative session:
• 30,000 meals
• 3,472 boxed lunches
• 2,232 bagels
• 2,100 pounds of tater tots
• 1,500 pounds of chicken
• 500 pounds of cheese
• 450 pizzas
• 60 gallons of fry sauce