By John Bartimole
Chef Travis Johnson has been in college for 21 years — and he doesn’t want to leave any time soon.
“I’ve been working in college for more than two decades, and it’s just so exciting to me,” he says. “Just to be in an educational environment, where we are constantly learning. It’s just fun, there’s a lot of energy, lots of new initiatives. It’s where I want to be.”
Chef Johnson currently serves as executive chef for the University of Notre Dame’s foodservice provider, Levy Restaurants. As such, he leads the team that provides meals for 14 of the university’s athletic teams, including, of course, its acclaimed football team. He’s also in charge of all game day meals, including the fans’ experience at the concession stands.
“We strive to provide balanced, fuel-centric meals for our athletes — food that is delicious but is good for them and serves their nutritional needs,” he says. “I think this experience is the best ever. The energy on game day is incredible. Even in the kitchen, away from the field, everyone is excited. It’s great to see all the chefs come together.”
Making that experience even more exciting was the Fighting Irish’s season-opener, played in Dublin, Ireland. “To get ready for that, we flew chefs from Dublin to Notre Dame to experience game day here in South Bend,” he says. “We worked with them to create an experience for our people that was both unique to Dublin, but still had a little bit of home cooking in it.”
While Notre Dame is the last college stop for Chef Johnson, its’ certainly not his first. After graduating from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, he stayed on as executive chef for the college. From there, he assumed a similar position at University of Missouri, Kansas City.
“I was told by a mentor chef that I should move to New Orleans, where I accepted a position at Tulane University,” he says. “And that’s where the fun started. Being in one of the best food cities in the world was inspiring and exciting.” It was there that he joined the ACF in 2008, because “I wanted to get certified.”
During his 7 ½ years there, Chef Johnson worked tirelessly in the community, helping with three different programs for at-risk youth. “We met with the families of those young people and helped get them into their first jobs.
“One of the other most rewarding experiences I had was getting involved with the Best Chefs of Louisiana program, which was a fundraiser for the region’s children’s hospital. We raised between $25,000 to $30,000 for that hospital.”
Chef Johnson said he’s always on the lookout for “teachable moments” when he’s working with chefs in training. “I had an a-ha moment once when I was cutting an onion,” he said. “I suddenly realized that most in the class didn’t really know how to do it. That’s when it struck me that we need to pause to teach a technique or skill that we might take for granted.”
For Chef Johnson, being on a college campus allows him to combine his love of teaching and his love of cooking — a recipe he’s followed for decades.