Chef Michael McGreal

Chef Michael McGreal’s

Chef Michael McGreal’s

Chef Michael McGreal’s adult education journey was a little bit like the multi-course meals he teaches his students to create. It was varied, and sometimes surprising, and in the end it was completely satisfying. USF was the savory main course, or perhaps the decadent dessert. Either way, it was the highlight.

McGreal started this journey after graduating from Brother Rice High School on the southwest side of Chicago. From there he was off to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to study veterinary medicine. For extra money, he took a job in the school’s food service program and after two short years he had risen to banquet chef for the entire university.

His interest shifted. Cooking was fun, and rewarding. McGreal no longer wanted to take care of sick animals. Now he wanted to feed people, and feed them well. So the next stop on his adult education journey was back in Chicago at Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute, where he received his formal education in the art of cooking.

“I came home when I realized that I wanted to stick with this as my career and not just as something to make money,” says McGreal, who is now the department chair for the Culinary Arts program at Joliet Junior College. Before landing at JJC in 1996 he had gained significant experience in the restaurant industry—from working at the highly acclaimed Everest Room in downtown Chicago under the tutelage of legendary chef Jean Joho, to opening a restaurant in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, where he grew up.

When McGreal arrived in Joliet, two huge opportunities presented themselves to him. He had been teaching at JJC for about two years when the first one came along.

It was a message from a woman named Cheryl who had terminal cancer. She had been given six weeks to live, and because of her family’s extensive cancer history she had no reason to doubt the prognosis. Cheryl was looking for a chef to cook healthy, delicious meals for her in the short time she had to live.

McGreal met with Cheryl, who was rail thin and as nice as a person could be, and he promised to put her in touch with one of his students.On the drive home from that meeting, it hit him.

“I thought, ‘My career has been so good to me and I have had so many opportunities, and if I can’t help someone for six weeks that would be pretty sad,’” McGreal recalls. The next day he called Cheryl to say that he would be happy to cook for her. He sourced only organic ingredients and created delicious meals for Cheryl, and four weeks later her doctor discovered that her cancer cells had not multiplied. Two weeks later—same story. Two years later, McGreal cooked for Cheryl’s 50th birthday. He cooked for her 51st. Her 52nd. Her 53rd.

About 5 ½ years into their arrangement Cheryl told McGreal that she was healthy now and could cook for herself. She returned to normal food, and a little more than six months later, she died. Six weeks had turned into almost six years. What a gift McGreal had been given—the opportunity to help someone in need, and dramatically increase that person’s quality of life in the process.

Opportunity number two presented itself while McGreal was still cooking for Cheryl. A USF representative visited JJC to talk to students about continuing their education and receiving a bachelor’s degree from USF. The representative asked McGreal where his bachelor’s was from and he had to admit that he did not have one, despite constantly encouraging his culinary students go on and pursue theirs after JJC.

The next thing McGreal knew, Janine Hicks was calling him from USF. McGreal liked the idea of earning a bachelor’s degree but did not think he could afford it at the time. When Hicks told him about the Adult Continuing Education Award scholarship, he related his story about cooking for Cheryl and he won the scholarship. He now holds a bachelor’s of science in Applied Organizational Management from USF’s College of Business and Health Administration.

“Janine tells me that they still cry when they read my scholarship application,” McGreal says. “I really feel like attending USF was meant to be for me. Just as I was caring for someone I didn’t know at the time, USF was doing the same for me.”

McGreal recalls how various people at USF kept tabs on him even after he received the scholarship. They cared about his success, he says—not just about putting another student in a seat.

“Most colleges often have the attitude of ‘You’re an adult now so if you don’t turn in an assignment or study for an exam, it’s your own fault,’” McGreal says. “It’s not that way at USF.”

McGreal obviously was as a good of a fit for USF as USF was for him. Before he ever set foot in a USF classroom he knew the importance of working hard and helping others in need. He also saw that spirit in action dozens of times as a USF student.

One cold day he walked out to his car after class and noticed that he had a flat tire. To make matters worse, it was a day when he had forgotten his gloves. As he positioned his jack and ratcheted up his car, a USF security officer approached him.

“He gave me his gloves and then helped me change the tire with no gloves on his own hands,” McGreal says. “That’s how it is there—people are friendly. At many other colleges and universities people will give you directions if you walk into someone’s office and ask for them. As USF people stop you in the hallway and say, ‘Do you need help with anything?’”

When McGreal graduated from Washburne, an associate’s degree was the norm for people working in the restaurant and hospitality industry, and a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts was not even available.

Today, even though JJC maintains one of the finest culinary arts programs in the country, the most advanced degree possible is an associate’s. So when McGreal encourages his students to further their education and be lifelong learners, he recommends USF as their next stop.

“I tell my students all the time that going to USF was the best experience I have ever had,” McGreal says.