VERONA — Chef Eric Rupert was, for a time, Odessa Piper's co-chef at L'Etoile.
He has cooked at the Madison Club and the late Ovens of Brittany, which influences Madison cuisine to this day. He ran his own restaurant, Kafe Kohoutek, for two years.
But the best experience, Rupert says, is now — in Epic's corporate cafeteria.
"I've been in the business since 1979, and I've never worked with a more talented group of cooks," Rupert said. "These cooks know they can go anywhere, do anything, after they work here.
"Nobody else in the country is doing what we're doing."
As the electronic health-record system company expands, Epic Systems has been pulling more and more cooks out to Verona. They may come direct from culinary school or out of the kitchens at L'Etoile, or from anywhere in between.
Rupert, Epic's executive chef since 2009, heads a team of 122 people, including dishwashers, bakers, delivery staff, baristas, caterers, team leaders, cooks and chefs.
Anticipating the opening of the 51,000 square foot King's Cross Dining Hall in May 2015, the company has plans to hire 42 more people, including 17 cooks.
During Rupert's tenure, only five cooks have left. Rupert largely credits flexibility, creative challenges and "a positive work environment" for the high retention rate.
Every few months, cooks rotate among stations, like the grill, entrees and salad station as well the smaller Farmer's Market Café and Mikey's Deli.
"The good healthy creative stress of doing a new dish," Rupert said, "in the quantity of (300 to 500) to 600 each day — and it's you and one other cook that has to do it, and it has to be great — it's incredibly rewarding."
Rupert's standards are high, but chefs have a fair amount of say in menu planning. Almost everything is made from scratch. Pay and benefits are better than most restaurants and the hours make it easier for cooks with families than typical restaurant work.
"If you hear the word 'cafeteria' what do you think?" Rupert said. "You think of middle school. You think of not good food.
"Although we are a corporate dining facility, what we do here is very different."
Epic's largest cafeteria, Cassiopeia, serves about 3,000 people for lunch every day. The new dining hall, located adjacent to new offices, will feed an estimated 2,000 more.
Approximately 80 percent of on-site employees stay on campus to eat, not including the 400 to 1,400 customers who might be at Epic for training. Those folks are served breakfast and lunch, too.
The menu at Cassiopeia is designed months in advance and changes daily. There are vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, all with full caloric and ingredient details, as well as DIY salad and sandwich stations.
On a recent Thursday, Epic employees could choose, among many other options, roasted root vegetable and goat cheese pizza topped with fresh arugula, a curried, braised lamb shank served with a rich tomato-based sauce and couscous, and Vietnamese hot and sour shrimp soup.
"What makes us attractive is the fact that we're doing things on a (large) scale, from scratch, and changing things every day," Rupert said.
Unlike corporations that contract with Aramark or Sodexo, food on campus at Epic is fully subsidized, and it's pretty cheap. Epic would prefer not to share how much employees pay for meals — the cafeteria is not open to the public. Rupert will say only that the food program neither makes nor loses money.
More subtly, the diversity of the food program supports Epic's reputation for long, demanding hours. By providing a way for people to stay on campus and continue working, the company estimates it saves $400,000-450,000 daily in productivity.
Some employees stay and sit in the high-ceilinged dining area, which has room for 400 people at a time and currently showcases an enormous Christmas tree. Most, it appears, take their lunches back to individual offices, some of which are outfitted with standing desks.
Stress in the kitchen, Rupert says, comes from the sheer volume of food and consistency of execution.
Before Epic, cook Chris Tuttle worked "all over Madison," including the recently closed Jolly Bob's, Ovens of Brittany on State Street, and Jordan's Big 10 Pub, where he still moonlights doing Friday night fish fry.
"I love how beautiful the campus is," Tuttle said, mixing a batch of red pepper hummus during a weekday service.
"As far as culinary goes, I don't even know where to start. We move around, work different stations. It's a giant operation but we still use fresh herbs, quality products, olive oil.
"It's really, really great."
"I don't ever see myself leaving this place," said Ben Coggin, 30, who's worked in the Epic kitchens for four years. He previously cooked at the Madison Club.
Successful cooks at Epic are self-motivated, Coggin said.
"Not only a good cook," he said, "but (someone) who can work with a lot of different people … not just cooks, but dishwashers, baristas, team leads, caterers. And knowing how to use a computer, which I struggled with when I first came here."
Kitchen employees, like everyone else at Epic, must take a computerized test before they make it to the second round of interviews.
But once a person is hired, the kitchen structure isn't as top-down as it is in more formal scenarios. Despite his background, Rupert doesn't like the "Yes, chef" culture common in high end kitchens.
"The goal is to make (500) or 600 of something as good as if you were making four," Rupert said. "One of the cooks, he was a sous chef from L'Etoile, did a braised short rib dish today. There was a line of 40 people long waiting, because it was an amazing dish and they all wanted it. That happens all the time.
"The plate was beautiful. I'm sure when he was at L'Etoile, it would have been just a little more beautiful."