DARLENE BARNES is not a chef, but to the brothers at Alpha Sigma Phi she’s more than just a cook.
She’s the petite pistol who showed up each weekday at the corner of U-Dub and “Oh no, you don’t!” and for seven years taught them to love good food.
Barnes is the savvy older sister who padlocked her frathouse fridge to keep their Jell-O shots out. The one who put an end to the practice of ditching dinner then assigning lowly pledges the duty of packing her jambalaya into Styrofoam “late boxes” — as if she were running a takeout joint on the Ave.
As mother hen she lent an ear while making brownies and, after a tragic death in the house, mended hearts by baking blondies. And like moms everywhere, the cook attempted to keep her temper in check when her Greek chorus complained “Malaysian Shrimp Noodle Bowl again?”
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In 2006, Barnes followed her husband’s career path from Texas to Seattle and, at 42, forged her own by doing something no sane empty-nester would consider: She made a pot roast and took it to a job interview at the Alpha Sig house — a winning move chronicled in her book, “Hungry: What Eighty Ravenous Guys Taught Me About Life, Love, and the Power of Good Food” (Hyperion, $24.99).
Despite having raised two sons, “I was terrified of walking into a house full of 18- to 22-year-old men,” Barnes recalls during a tour of the frat in August, where she cringed at the state of the cramped kitchen she’d left spotless, one last time, in January.
“I came in knowing nothing about the food culture in a fraternity,” and found that this one, like many, relied heavily on powdered sauces and frozen pizzas. Worse, “I had guys who said they’d never eaten a home-cooked meal!”
As their hired hand, “I wanted to challenge that notion.”
Feeding scores of young men three squares from scratch — on a budget of $48 per person per week — was a feat, and in the face of testosterone overload, Barnes proved fearless.
She’d never run a professional kitchen, nor ordered food for an industrial one. And though she briefly worked in a fussy supermarket’s commissary and brandished a bottomless credit card as personal chef to a Dallas billionaire, her cook’s resume was surprisingly thin.
She couldn’t shop at farmers markets or specialty shops, as she did off the clock. “It was a quandary for me.” Yet the outspoken cook hounded her purveyors, set on scoring quality produce and cheaper cuts of thoughtfully raised meats. As a frat cook, “I was seen as crazy, but I was ahead of the curve.” When she started, her No. 1 purveyor offered 45 organic products. “When I left, they had 900.”
Barnes never had a vegetarian in the house, though she tried — and occasionally succeeded — in turning tastes in that direction. Spicy food was always a hit, she says, and her grilled flank steak recipe never missed.
Korean Marinade for Flank Steak
Enough for 10 pounds of steak
2 cups soy sauce
6 ounces dark brown sugar
10 garlic cloves, chopped
2-4 Thai chilies, chopped
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1½-inch piece of fresh ginger, chopped
1 cup gochujang (Korean chili paste)
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until well-mixed. Pour over any tough cut of steak (flank, skirt, flap) and marinate overnight. Remove meat from marinade and grill.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.