Otto Meza carries clean spoons with him at all times.
Meza, a production manager at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Harper Dining Center, tells people to taste the food as they cook and keeps spoons handy so he can check dishes as they get prepared.
“I always tell them, ‘Don’t over-season because you can always add more seasoning,’” he said. “I like to walk around when they’re making their foods and I’ll taste everything and give them my input.”
At the university, Meza enjoys sharing both his food and his knowledge with others on campus.
Meza had to step outside his normal responsibilities during a recent incident at the Harper Dining Hall. A cook mentioned that they smelled something unusual in a hallway. Meza investigated and walked around the building looking for the source of the smell and found it in the basement of Smith Hall, where the heat from a recent washing and drying had ignited the oils in some cleaning rags in a storage room.
He called the fire department, who told him to pull the nearest fire alarm. He pulled it and then ran back upstairs to tell the other employees and students who had already started to line up for dinner to get out of the building.
He walked around the dining hall a bit while the alarms were sounding to make sure no one was still there and then went to wait with everyone else while the fire was extinguished. The center reopened the next morning.
“I did what anybody else would have done, I hope,” he said. “Thank goodness for the fire department, they were able to get everything under control and there was no major damage done to the building.”
Lucas Novotny, executive director of Housing and Dining Services, said Meza deserves kudos for his quick thinking to help keep the incident under control.
“To put it plainly, the incident could have been a lot worse at Harper Dining and Smith Hall if Otto had not acted so quickly and decisively,” Novotny said.
Dave Annis, director of University Dining Services, said he appreciated Meza’s decisive actions.
“It’s nice to know that we have staff at all levels that are trained and won’t panic in an emergency situation,” Annis said. “Otto put the safety of our students and staff first with the decision he made.”
Meza worked at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln for more than a decade, starting as a dishwasher when he was 17. He worked his way up the ranks until he was sous chef and banquet chef.
The experience cooking for large parties like weddings and other events there was good preparation for serving large amounts of people as the team does at Harper Dining Center.
“I would have four different functions all going out at the same time with different menus,” Meza said.
He worked in a couple of other local kitchens before he joined the staff at Nebraska in 2021. He’s stayed in the food industry because he enjoys food and being in a kitchen and the people who work in them.
“I do enjoy cooking,” he said. “It kind of came naturally to me.”
Meza’s family is Mexican, so he grew up cooking and loving a lot of Mexican dishes, and his mother played a big role in his interest and early education in food. He also likes finding different ways to prepare steaks, and he especially loves a good burger.
“I’d eat a burger every day,” he said.
Meza might have his favorites, but he enjoys trying things other people have made and finding inspiration in them for his own cooking.
“I always tell people, ‘Never be afraid to try something new,’” he said. “It might not be for you, but then you know.”
His responsibilities at Harper include managing the staff, making sure food prep is ready for that day and keeping up with inventory. He also works at the Harper’s Smokehouse Food Truck and helped develop its menu.
He said preparing meals for a large group, like the number of students who come through Harper Dining Center every day, has specific challenges. Making the right amount to avoid having too much left over, as well as coordinating cook time so food will be ready at around the same time are two things that take practice.
“You’ve got different dishes and they all go out at the same time, but you’ve got to be able to get one thing going first and get down to the stuff that won’t take as much time,” he said.
Working in a team environment like a kitchen, Meza tries to teach others some of these skills and other techniques like proper knife skills and batch cooking.
“Some of them will come from restaurants so they’re used to cooking to order, but cooking in big environments like this, it’s all about the batch cooking,” he said.
Meza said he’s also always learning from the people he works with. Tucker Seaman, another production manager at Harper Dining Center, taught him a lot about smoking meats, for example. Sharing his experience and learning from theirs is one of his favorite parts of the job, he said.
“This career is constant learning,” he said. “You think you know everything and you learn a completely different way of doing something from somebody else, and you bring that into your way of cooking.”
In his current position, Meza doesn’t do as much of the actual cooking as he used to, but he still helps with the grill, the kitchen or even dishwashing whenever needed.
“We want to keep a smooth, well-oiled machine here, and I think we do a really good job of that here,” he said.
Meza said he likes coming to work and collaborating with his team at Harper, and he thinks they do a good job of pushing through frustrating moments to feed the campus community.
“We put out great product,” he said. “I think our food is really, really good.”