Chef Luke Rayford isn’t concerned about needing to cook 100 turkeys on Thanksgiving morning.
It’s a familiar routine at this point, he says, so what is there to worry about? Rayford, like he does every year, will be up well before the sun to arrive at Duncan Dining Hall around 3 a.m. to put the turkeys – which he will have already thawed and seasoned – in the oven for about four hours. One thing the chef does know: When he gets home later that day, he won’t be eating any turkey, potatoes or dressing.
“I don’t want to see any more of that for a while,” said Rayford, who’s been a chef at Texas A&M University for 34 years. “I’m eating menudo and watching a football game.”
Rayford may downplay the cooking he does each Thanksgiving, but he plays a critical role in feeding hundreds of local families for the holiday each year. Thanksgiving in the Brazos Valley, now in its 39th year and organized by Epicures Catering, has been prepared at Duncan Dining Hall for the past 10 years, with Rayford in charge of the turkey. Each year, hundreds of volunteers for the nonprofit deliver about 1,000 meals to community members in need.
Even before the food was prepared on campus, Rayford volunteered his time to cook for Thanksgiving in the Brazos Valley for more than three decades. Rayford says his motivation is simple.
“I don’t want to see anyone go hungry, and this is how I can do my part,” he said.
This is also his approach as a Chartwells chef at Texas A&M dining halls. Rayford is used to feeding thousands of students each day, so for him, “100 turkeys is nothing.”
David Riddle, regional vice president for Chartwells and Aggie Dining, said Rayford is a good example of what he likes best about hospitality: “He’s humble, hardworking and his commitment to the student experience and his colleagues at A&M has been unwavering for 34 years.”
While he never attended Texas A&M, Rayford embodies many of the university’s core values, Riddle said.
“Thanksgiving in the Brazos Valley is a great example of living selfless service,” Riddle said. “This event is above and beyond his job here.”
A Bryan native, Rayford began cooking as a kid to pull his weight around the house while his parents were at work. He spent six years in the Army, and went to culinary school while at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
After he left the military, Rayford got a job at Sbisa Dining Hall with the help of a cousin who worked there at the time. He’s been working for dining halls on campus ever since.
Rayford is going on about six years as a chef at Commons Dining Hall. Before working there, he put in 17 years at Sbisa and 12 years at Duncan, as well as some time in catering at the Memorial Student Center.
When he first started working at Sbisa, Rayford remembers making massive amounts of beef stroganoff in the dining hall’s 60-gallon kettles, often making three batches in the same day. He doesn’t have a favorite meal that he likes to prepare these days, but says students like macaroni and cheese and chicken tenders best.
“Chef Luke is a critical leadership piece to the team at Commons,” said Bradley D. Robertson, director of operations for Aggie Dining. “His guidance and demeanor are what set him apart from other culinarians.”
Rayford has an “unwavering commitment” to serve others, Robertson said. Even during challenging moments, Rayford remains calm. “He never says no, and he always supports anyone in need.”
True to this reputation, Rayford is modest about his years of service spent feeding Aggieland, whether for Thanksgiving or a normal breakfast, lunch or dinner shift.
“I enjoy cooking, but I also just enjoy being able to feed people and make sure they’re satisfied,” he said.