Unsung Heroes of the Cafeteria: Thien Hoang, Ken Sligar, Maria Cervantes, and Sarai Cervantes

Unsung Heroes of the Cafeteria: Thien Hoang, Ken Sligar, Maria Cervantes, and Sarai Cervantes

It’s five minutes to noon, and students are finally being dismissed from their second block of the day with hungry stomachs they are determined to satisfy. Though some students choose to leave campus for a coffee or bagel fix, the rest are sure to find a delicious entree with a medley of nutritious sides that have been carefully selected for them as soon as they step foot in the Menlo cafeteria.

While the chefs in the kitchen each assume slightly different roles, they prepare food for both the middle and upper school with the same task in mind: to provide students with a variety of tasty, nutritious food options carefully organized so students’ hunger can be quickly satisfied. While many are familiar with cooks serving their food or restocking the fruits and vegetables, each chef has a different story to share for why they wear their uniform and gloves. 

Thien Hoang

Amber More

It’s commonplace to see the friendly face of the Director of FLIK Dining Services enthusiastically greeting students left and right and telling them about the extensive menu for the day. However, few know that Thien Hoang immigrated from Vietnam with his family when he was 2 years old.

Hoang’s parents arrived in San Diego, where they created one of San Diego’s first Vietnamese restaurants, and it wasn’t long before Hoang followed in their footsteps. When Hoang was just seven years old, he started washing dishes and waiting tables at his family’s restaurant.

After he graduated from high school, Hoang left his hometown of San Diego behind to attend
the University of California, Santa Cruz and major in biochemistry, a science that tied back to his love for food. Because his parents wanted him to be a doctor, Hoang attended medical school at the University of California, San Francisco for one semester before dropping out.

Hoang left medical school behind, eager to explore another career path. “I didn’t really have the passion for [medicine], so then I went back into the restaurant business,” he said. 

Hoang started his new career working for Spago Palo Alto, a high-end restaurant owned by three-time Michelin Star-winning chef Wolfgang Puck. Hoang was promoted to assistant general manager as a waiter and managed the restaurant’s catering for six years. 

After its closing, Hoang worked as a senior general manager at Stanford Dining and eventually came to Menlo School through the company FLIK. 

Hoang works every day, arriving at school at 6:00 a.m., with a smile and a heart that cares about students’ needs to make everyone’s lunch experience at Menlo as great as possible.

Ken Sligar

Amber More

Ken Sligar is the executive chef who oversees the food preparation and serving at Menlo. Sligar’s passion for the culinary arts began when he would watch his great-grandmother bring his family together with Thanksgiving dinner each year. After her passing, Sligar brought it upon himself to begin cooking Thanksgiving dinner every year to continue the tradition. 

His love for culinary art was affirmed when he began college and started to sell cakes to keep up with college expenses. “One of my customers asked me if I would do this and not get paid,” Sligar said. “And I said ‘probably,’ then [thought], ‘maybe that’s what you should do for a living.’” Soon afterward, he decided to attend culinary school.

One of Sligar’s specialties is accommodating students with allergen and dietary needs, providing them with tasty and safe alternatives. He also hopes to listen to student’s food preferences; one of Sligar’s responsibilities is to structure the menu for the week and implement dishes that students enjoy. “Let me or Thien know things you would love to see,” Sligar said. “If you see something you’re not in the mood for, come to talk to me or Thien.”

Cooking isn’t a simple craft, especially in large quantities. Every Menlo chef must receive certification and follow strict practices, such as recording temperatures, to ensure constant cooking time. The kitchen staff must also overcome unforeseen circumstances, such as when appliances aren’t functioning. 

Sligar expressed that cooking for Menlo feels like cooking for his family. “I love working with all the students,” he said. “That is probably the thing that drives me here.” He wishes that his food incites nothing but the best feelings in students and hopes lunchtime serves as a time for
students not to think about classwork but rather enjoy some food and be
with their friends.

Maria and Sarai Cervantes

Amber More

Alongside Hoang and Sligar is a devoted staff who works as a team to ensure that food is set out and ready for students, faculty and staff. 

Maria Cervantes, who has been at Menlo for six years, is one of many chefs in the cafeteria. Cervantes, who grew up in Michoacan, Mexico, did not cook much growing up. She found her love for food later on in her life when she began working in food prep. Though Cervantes helps wherever she sees fit, she is mainly assigned to the deli. Cervantes preps the meat for sandwiches and ensures the deli and salad bar remain clean and stocked.

Sarai Cervantes, Maria’s daughter, is a new staff member at Menlo and, unlike much of the rest of the staff, this is her first food prep job. Although she felt pressured and anxious about a new experience with time restraints, her co-workers and organizational structures have granted her great ease.

Sarai Cervantes also runs the Snack Shack after school. Every week, she preps the pastries and makes more throughout the week based on demand. In addition to preparing the Snack Shack, Sarai Cervantes helps with serving as well as food prep in the cafeteria. 

Maria Cervantes said she has had a great experience at Menlo and appreciates the tight-knit community. She feels closely connected to the other cooks and noted that the kitchen team feels incomplete when another staff member is absent. “I love working here,” she said. “We’re like family.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributors
Cindy Olguin
Cindy Olguin, Staff Writer
Amber More
Amber More, Creative Director

Number of years in The Coat of Arms: 1

Favorite aspect of journalism: watching everything come together from the first draft to print

Interests outside of school: rock climbing, Pop Culture, and Formula 1

Class of 2025

Comments (0)

The Coat of Arms encourages dialogue with our audience. We welcome constructive comments that avoid slander, hate, profanity and misinformation. In an effort to give voice to a variety of perspectives, anonymous comments will be considered, but signed comments are preferred. If you would like to submit an anonymous comment, please write "Anonymous" in the "Name" field below. While a valid email address is required, The Coat of Arms will not publish your email address. The Editorial Board will review comments and decide whether they will be put online; the editors reserve the right to edit for concision.
All Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *