Whenever I see Frank, he is clad in a white chef’s coat and hat. The coat accumulates smudges of egg whites and avocado as he cooks breakfast. A cordless landline phone lives in the coat’s breast pocket. I see him check the phone often while he flips omelets throughout the morning, juggling his many tasks without showing a hint of strain.
Frank Hassan trusts college students with his heart. He loves them without reserve and knows them better than most professors and some parents. He wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning to commute to campus, set up his kitchen and cook the pancakes, quesadillas and oatmeal that will be laid out by the time I stumble into breakfast at 8 a.m. Frank always greets me before I have a chance to say hello first. “Renée, Renée, good morning, beautiful.” We exchange bits of ourselves to the accompaniment of at least three pans of eggs that Frank simultaneously watches, shakes and flips.
Every man is Frank’s main man. Every woman is either beautiful or gorgeous. But don’t let the identical greetings fool you; Frank knows every student by name and tries to learn as much about each individual as he can in the window when his or her omelet is cooking. Frank’s favorite part of his job is “in the morning when I see the students.” The worst part of his job: “leaving [the students] for the day.” In his own words, “my life is the students.”
Frank has two children of his own, Mohammed and Amira, who are roughly college-age. He is not in touch with them. Sitting across from me at a table by the window in the Bollard eating club, Frank grows quiet when I ask him about Mohammed and Amira. He wipes his face from forehead to chin several times with a gesture that looks as if he is trying to wipe away what he is feeling by wiping away his facial expression. He looks out from thick eyebrows with dark, bittersweet eyes. “I feel old,” he confesses. “All of you guys are my kids’ age. Psychologically, I feel you replace my kids.” His Egyptian accent is warm and hoarse.
Frank left Egypt when he was 25, arriving in New York on Oct. 10, 1980. He was en route to becoming a lawyer in Egypt, but took a detour that landed him first in Brooklyn, next in Queens with two kids. After only three years in New York, he opened Amira Restaurant, serving a range from hamburgers to chicken Parmesan. When I ask him what people at Stanford know about him least, he replies, “People don’t know that I’m educated. I was going to be a lawyer.” After a divorce with his wife, he moved to California in 1995 and began working at Stanford in 2001, first as a chef in Narnia and eventually in Suites Dining as the beloved breakfast cook in Bollard. “I love it here, and I do my best,” he says. His daily greetings and his omelets are testaments to that.
When we return to the subject of Mohammed and Amira, Frank tells me that he and his son have not spoken for eleven years, something to do with his son’s encounters with drugs. About Amira he seems more hopeful, but remains firm that if she wants to have a relationship with him, she has to contact him first, not the other way around. I look across the table by the window, and I see the man who greets me first every morning before I can even open my mouth. He likes to play soccer and to go to the gym in his free time. He loves listening to Whitney Houston so much that he starts beaming just talking about her. I see his resilience, his enormous love and a corner of his sorrow.
His contract with Suites dining runs year-to-year. The University is planning to let him go and to contract an outside company to do what Frank has devoted the past ten years of his life to doing. I don’t know that you can contract a company to love students the way Frank does. He tells me that if the University has a plan for Suites Dining, they are keeping him and the other chefs in the dark. “I want to know why they want a change, but they tell us nothing,” he says of the proposed switch. The terms of his contract with Stanford appall me, but he doesn’t seem bitter. Unmoored, maybe, and suspicious, but this is a man who seems incapable of ill will.
I can’t stop thinking how special it is to have somebody in your life who always greets you first, who makes you feel special and includes you in his heart without testing you or asking that you fill out an application. We stand up from the table by the window, and Frank hugs me before I get a chance to hug him first. The cordless landline phone has been privy to our entire conversation unfolding, without ringing to announce its presence. He returns the phone to its home in his breast pocket, pulls it out to check it again, returns it to the breast pocket and walks back to his kitchen. Monday, he will greet me first. He will make my omelet and tell me I’m beautiful, and he will keep feeding us with impossible optimism.
For more about the proposed change in Suites dining, look out for a feature piece by Miles Unterreiner coming soon. If you have any questions for Renée, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.