Top-Notch Chef: Penland chef stirs things up for Baylor

John Mercer is Penland Crossroads' Executive Chef. Mercer has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 15 years old and Baylor is the sixth university where he’s worked as an executive chef.Carlye Thornton | Lariat Photo Editor
John Mercer is Penland Crossroads” Executive Chef. Mercer has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 15 years old and Baylor is the sixth university where he’s worked as an executive chef.
Carlye Thornton | Lariat Photo Editor
By Viola Zhou

It was 10:40 a.m., five minutes before the lunch hour started. Students were lining up at the entrance of Penland Crossroads dining hall. John Mercer, in his black hat, black chef uniform and black frame glasses, was giving final reminders to his staff.
“Tomorrow is the game day,” he said with a serious face. “We need to make sure that we do continuous service.”

“Remember to have your hat on,” Mercer continued. “I have three chef hats, $3 each, so I can always have one here.” All of the day’s lunch dishes were on the table in front of him for the staff to see.

Mercer, the 41-year-old Texan who is called “Chef John” by his staff, joined Baylor in August. Once a science major at the University of Texas, he is now the top chef behind Penland Crossroads, the largest food court on campus.

“It’s the sixth university where I’ve worked as executive chef,” he said. “In universities, there are much more opportunities for experimentation and exploration. I can really develop my style to let my customers enjoy. And it’s always fun to get new customers and expose them to what I do.”

Mercer, a native of Jasper, has been working in restaurants since he got his first job in a burger restaurant as a dishwasher at the age of 15. He went to UT and majored in psychology and zoology without giving up his job.

While in college, Mercer studied during the day and cooked at night. He said he was not familiar with sleep during college.

“Studying and cooking full time was normal for me. I don’t sleep much,” he said, laughing.

However, Mercer didn’t think scientific research was the right path for him. He left college one semester before graduation and decided to pursue a new track and career as a cook.

“Writing scientific papers was fairly grueling, and I didn’t have the patience to sit on the desk,” he said. “I learned what I needed in college. I learned how to learn. In my current field, a degree in psychology and zoology would do absolutely nothing. I feel like I’ve got every penny out of it. I paid it by myself, so, my choice.”

Following his then girlfriend, Mercer moved to Seattle and received his first university job at Seattle Pacific University, where he started as a line cook. He became the executive chef within one year.

“They just built a new building and were having staff issues,” Mercer said. “I worked hard and was promoted four times within a year.”

After that, Mercer worked at Linfield College in Oregon, Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Emory University in Atlanta. His career as a chef supported a passion for traveling.

“I’ve gotten to see the United States,” he said. “I have gotten different experiences, regional foods and cooking styles. There is no better way to learn than go there and do it.”

At Baylor, Mercer calls staff meetings twice a day. Before every meeting, he will walk around every station to look at menus and check if cooks have an understanding of everything. He said he will also come to the dining floor to look at the glass and the display to make sure counters look just right.

Anthony Thomas, service manager at Penland Crossroads, said the chef has a good eye for detail and is very passionate about his job.

“He is definitely in love with what he does,” Thomas said. “He likes food. He likes to cook. He likes to taste.

“His food knowledge is something I haven’t seen in a whole lot of people. That includes cooking, cleaning, health standard – everything.”

Mercer said he has lunch and dinner at Penland five days a week. One of his favorite foods is smoky pork.

“Those smokers are something unique,” he said. “When they are done right, the food that comes out of them is just beautiful, perfect, smoky.”

Mercer said his typical trips to Penland end at 7 p.m., after 10 hours of working.

“A chef’s job is always difficult,” he said. “It means long hours, lots of lifting and a hot environment. I didn’t have to do this. I’m fairly well educated, but I love cooking.”

Mercer said he would describe himself as an active person, always interacting with students.

“Just hello or short jokes, making people smile, talking to them about food,” he said. “If there are concerns with the menu, I will address them. Sometimes it’s just talking. It’s easy to walk over to a table and watch football and have conversation about sports. Easy.”

Mercer said he has received plenty of positive feedback from conversations, but he has also has numbers that show the dining hall has its haters. Some have complained Penland doesn’t have a static menu to ensure it has burgers and pizza every day. And some have commented that they want a make-your-own deli.

“In this building, make-to-order is difficult because it’s very, very slow. We can’t put people on a line,” Mercer said. “We try to make up by providing a constantly moving menu. You may not have instantaneous variety such as make-to-order, but day-to-day, the foods are going to be completely different.”

Staff members at Penland think highly of Chef John. Salad bar attendant Andrea Johnson, who worked at Penland before Mercer joined, said Mercer made the food court better.

“I love Chef John. That’s my dude. He is awesome,” Johnson said. “If I have problems, he is the person to talk to. If you are wrong, he lets you know. The first time I saw him I thought he was super cool. He is such a sweet person.”

Cook Jason Kelly at Penland also said Mercer wears his chef hat well.

“He knows food,” Kelly said. “He knows what is going on in the kitchen. He knows what he wants and he knows how to do it.”

Mercer said he feels proud to be the manager of people with strong work ethic like those at Penland Crossroads. Pointing at a station that serves waffle sandwiches, he said two line cooks there are among those who work really hard.

“It’s nice to lead people like that. Not only is it easy, it’s fulfilling,” he said.