Making a meal is about more than cooking. Food brings people to the table—to eat, yes—but also to converse, laugh or simply enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company. A dinner lovingly prepared fills the stomach and nourishes the soul. Chefs are both cooks and artists, their canvas the plate, their patrons you and me—us. A chef’s sense of pride and mission informs everything they do from choosing the right ingredients to plating the food in such a way that one can’t help but want to take a bite.
Surtida Shelton is a chef, although her official title at UW Tacoma is Associate Director of Student Engagement. “What I’ve found is there’s really no difference between being a university administrator and being a chef,” said Shelton. “In both settings you have to have the ability to lead, to solve problems and multitask.”
In her role as associate director, Shelton supports programs and initiatives that help students succeed and ultimately graduate. She also serves as one of the university’s conduct officers and assists the University’s newly created Office of Student Advocacy and Support. “If there’s a concern with a student or if a student says they’re concerned about their well-being or success at the university, then I come up with a way to help them get what they need,” said Shelton.
Higher education has been a focus of Shelton’s career. Prior to UW Tacoma, Shelton spent two years in Ellensburg at Central Washington University. “I love college students,” she said. “I love working with them, everything about them is amazing to me.”
In many ways, UW Tacoma is Shelton’s table. Five thousand guests, hungry for knowledge, have arrived and are waiting. They, like a good meal, take time. In this case, it’s a matter of years, not hours. Fortunately, they have someone ready to serve. Chef Shelton.
Surtida Shelton—then Surtida Bhandari—was born and raised in Tanzania. Her mother worked in a bank, her father as a teacher. Shelton and her brother attended public school, which at the time was poorly funded and under-resourced. Life began to change when Shelton’s father was offered a position at a prestigious international school that catered to foreigners. “This was a hard decision for him,” said Shelton. Her father had been an activist during Tanzania’s struggle for independence. The East African country had been under British rule until the early 1960s. “It was a struggle because taking the job meant access for his kids. They’d have an opportunity that was denied to most Tanzanians.”
In the end, Shelton’s father took the job, a decision that opened doors. “That is what changed my brother and I, in that, suddenly, we had access to the rest of the world that we hadn’t had before,” said Shelton. We were exposed to art class and music class and swimming class. We were like, ‘What is all this?’ ”
Shelton has a gift for languages. She speaks seven—eight if you count music. Shelton discovered her musical prowess at the international school. “The teacher was writing out notes and the pattern was just making sense,” she said. “It was like a language that my brain understood.” Shelton decided she wanted to learn an instrument. She taught herself how to play both the flute and saxophone.
A teacher noticed Shelton’s musical acumen. “Rhonda Smith saw something in me that no one else did,” said Shelton. It was Smith who introduced her to a summer camp at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Shelton applied and was accepted—not once, but twice. “I got to spend two summers in the U.S. studying music,” she said. “I didn’t know there was this whole world of people who took music and education so seriously.”
Shelton attended Interlochen following her junior and senior years of high school. College was the next step and, once again, Smith offered assistance. “She went to Arkansas Tech University,” said Shelton. “She reached out to the institution and helped me secure a full scholarship because that was the only way I could go. I had no way to pay.”
Shelton grew up in the late 1970s, a time of different cultural norms in both the U.S. and Tanzania. “Girls and boys were treated differently,” she said. “You didn’t raise your daughters, they went to school up to a certain age and then you married them off.” Shelton’s parents—especially her father—were different. They encouraged their daughter to explore. “I had friends who had to lie to their parents or hide what they were doing,” said Shelton. “I was fortunate to have a very supportive and loving family.”
Shelton packed her bags. She left her home in Dar es Salaam (population four million) for Russellville, Arkansas (population 27,000) in the northwest corner of the state. “It was very shocking initially because, in my mind, the United States was all the same,” said Shelton. “I discovered these different pockets of culture, identity and way of doing things.”
Shelton majored in music with a focus on the bassoon. While at Arkansas Tech she made what turned out to be lifelong friends including the son of her host family. The family lived in Waldron about an hour outside of Russellville. The pair would venture out into town. “One day I heard my host dad tell his son that he needed to bring me back before dark,” said Shelton. “He felt it wasn’t safe for me to be brown and a foreigner and wanted me home.”
There was one ugly moment in a fairly uneventful undergraduate experience. Shelton found a note on her dorm room door that said “go back to where you came from.” Shelton took down the note and penned a response. “I will leave here when I graduate,” she said. “In the meantime we have to learn how to get along.” Shelton put the note back up and waited. She never got a response.
Shelton seemed destined for a career in music. Following graduation she got a job at Interlochen overseeing students in the residence hall. Shelton had been on the job for a while when the dean of students approached her with a question. “He wanted to know if I’d considered a career in student affairs,” said Shelton. “I had no idea what he was talking about.”
The dean arranged for Shelton to meet with an administrator in student affairs. “She said, ‘You’re doing the work right now and you don’t even know it,’ ” said Shelton. The pair talked about options including graduate school. “I decided to go to Michigan State and pursue a master’s in student affairs administration,” she said. “I’ve never looked back.”
Shelton may not have looked back but there was something on the back burner. “Food has been an integral part of my life,” she said. Shelton lovingly recalls spending time at her grandmother’s home on a sugar plantation outside of Dar es Salaam. “She had chickens and a huge garden,” said Shelton. “I remember she had these two massive stones that she used to grind things like wheat, rice and lentils into flour.”
A personal connection to food is an old idea that’s found new life in the hectic, ready-made convenience of modern life. “The freshness, the intimacy that we’re trying for now is something I grew up with,” said Shelton.
This view of food as more than a chore stayed with Shelton. She describes herself as “having never missed a meal.” However, she’s picky about what she consumes. “I try to be a mindful eater,” Shelton said. “I’m also very seasonal. I’m not going to buy strawberries in January because it’s not their season.”
Shelton had been working at Central Washington University for two years when she decided to make a change. She left the university in 2004 and enrolled at the Art Institute of Seattle to pursue a culinary arts degree. Once there she honed her skills both in and out of the classroom. Shelton competed for the school’s culinary team. She earned multiple medals—two silvers and a bronze—from competing in cooking competitions. During this time, she also found work conducting food demonstrations at Metropolitan Market. “I loved it,” she said. “I didn’t go to culinary school to work in a restaurant. I went to culinary school to teach other people about food.”
After graduation, Shelton got hired to be a chef at Microsoft headquarters. For nearly a year, she made the commute north from Tacoma to Redmond. She once got the chance to make lunch for Microsoft founder Bill Gates. “It was the end of summer and we had this kitchen full of beautiful produce and this really amazing local salmon,” said Shelton. “Mr. Gates ordered a tuna salad on white with pickle on the side.”
Shelton left Microsoft for work closer to home. The two-plus-hours in the car every day had started to take a physical toll. She returned to her previous position at Metropolitan Market and stayed for a couple of years. Shelton loved answering peoples’ questions and showing them how to prepare certain types of food. The one downside was the long hours, which often included evenings and weekends. Shelton and her husband wanted to start a family and needed a more predictable schedule. “Plus, I really missed working with college students,” said Shelton.
The Art Institute of Seattle hired Shelton to work as a career advisor. It was during interactions with students that she learned of a unique opportunity. Shelton’s mentor, Chef Bridget Charters, freelanced with Food Network and was recruiting students to join her. “I kind of gave her a hard time because she hadn’t asked me,” said Shelton. “She thought I was too busy.”
Shelton signed on to work different events including the New York City Wine and Food Festival. High-profile chefs like Bobby Flay and Thomas Keller work these shows. In the beginning, Shelton helped behind the scenes on the prep crew. “It was up to us to get everything ready so the chef could step on stage and start cooking,” she said.
Shelton still works a few events a year. Her attention to detail and her consistency earned her a promotion. She’s now a stage manager, responsible for making sure each show goes off without a hitch. “This is their brand,” she said. “You have to respect it and you have to take care of it.”
Shelton came to UW Tacoma in 2014. “I’d lived in Tacoma since 2004 but never worked here,” she said. Proximity to home was only one factor in Shelton’s decision. “There’s a group of students who always hear about access but this university was actually doing something about it,” she said. “They were committed to helping young people go to college and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Shelton still cooks, mostly for her family, but sometimes professionally as well. She applies the same level of care here that she does in a kitchen. Both professions require a commitment to service, in taking the good and making it better. Anecdotally, Shelton’s story shows there’s no one recipe for success. The same person can be a musician, administrator and chef.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org