Sam’s Place dining hall is the daily pit stop for the busy students of Montclair State looking to get a meal in before continuing their day. However, this quick stop for food is a lot more than that to one chef of Sam’s Place: Al Horford.
A chef at Sam’s Place for five years now, Horford makes it a priority to provide students with the best experience possible when visiting his line.
“I’ve got five beautiful daughters, and all you kids remind [me] of them,” he said. “I really think of all you guys as my kids here. That’s why I love what I do. It makes it even better when you guys reciprocate that back to me. It’s all love here, for everybody.”
Horford is a big, tall guy with a welcoming voice that is hard to miss. He can usually be found at Sam’s gluten-free station, wearing his purple shirt and talking to students.
Students take well to the friendliness of Horford, as there is always a long line at his station. Student Adrian Rivera, 20, said, “I only come to this station when Al is cooking. I mean, the food is always good, and I always have a nice conversation with the guy. What could be better?”
Whether he is known as Al, Big Al, or even “the big guy who makes the good chicken,” students notice when somebody puts in the extra effort.
“You really just get the sense that he actually cares about you and what he is serving you,” said Amy Zaniewski, 19. “Other chefs don’t say a word, and slap whatever on to your plate.”
The students are not the only ones who notice this, however. Chef Manager Devinci Williams takes pride in having Horford on his staff.
“Big Al? That’s my man right there,” he said. “Everybody—students, other chefs, professors—all love that guy. I love having him around. He’s always someone that you can count on, and he can work at just about any station.”
Horford’s coworkers appreciate the work he puts in as well. “He’s a fun guy to work with,” said Wanda Smith, another chef on the team. “Whenever he’s around, everyone’s mood just seems to be better, even after working in this place for nine hours.”
In his five years of being a chef at Montclair State, Horford has seen a lot of different things. He said he has seen the dining hall improve a lot since he first started, but also has seen just about every behavior from a student possible. With a lot of experience comes a lot of stories.
“When kids are hungry, you better watch out,” he said. “A couple years back, a student that had enough of waiting walked around my station and took the food out himself. It was raw because it wasn’t done cooking, but I wasn’t about to get mad at that.”
A lot of times though, according to Horford, students are more selfless than some might imagine, which is why the warm greetings and cordial conversation are so natural and important for him.
Horford recalled encountering a group of kids who got all their food to go, with the intent of giving it to the homeless.
“I’m telling you, kids are special,” he said. “Stuff like that makes me glad I get to see all you kids every day.”
Not only does Horford see them in the dining hall, but in his spare time, he can be found playing basketball with students at the Student Recreation Center. One student, Nick Lozaw, 22, said, “I knew the guy can cook, but I didn’t know he could shoot too.”
When it comes down to it, for Horford, being a chef is much more than just serving food. He said, “Students have so much going on in their lives; the last thing they need is a bad meal. If I can help with that and make their day better, I know I’m doing something right.”