Kenny Fredericks bobbed his head up and down to the Motown music that blasted from his radio, his gray baseball cap sometimes hiding his face as he tossed fresh burgers onto the grill. Meanwhile, over 60 hungry brothers of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity formed a line around him holding empty plates, anxiously anticipating the juicy cheeseburgers that Fredericks flipped with his spatula.
Sporting frayed jeans, white sneakers and a ZBT official member shirt, the fraternity’s house chef did not appear to be someone at work, but rather at home among his family.
In fact, Zeta Beta Tau at the University of Miami has felt like home to the entire Fredericks family for many years. Kenny Fredericks’ mother, Mattie Lou Fredericks, became the ZBT house chef in 1959, serving many generations of brothers until her retirement in 2002.
From the time he was an infant, Kenny Fredericks and his older sister Cynthia Fredericks often accompanied their mother to work. At the age of 19, Cynthia Fredericks began assisting her mother in the kitchen and went on to work alongside her mother for 32 years.
When Cynthia and Mattie Lou Fredericks retired in 2002, Kenny Fredericks stepped up to grab the position and has been wielding the spatula ever since.
“When I was a kid, the plan was never for me to come here and cook,” Kenny Fredericks said. “It just happened to turn into a family thing.”
Now 52 years old, Fredericks is constantly reminded of his family’s legacy at ZBT. His mother’s picture remains framed in the main hallway, along with many plaques honoring her service and renowned cooking ability.
Now filling his mother’s shoes, Fredericks said he understands the challenges that come along with the job of cooking for over 60 college students at a time.
“It’s given me an appreciation for what my mom was able to do,” he said. “I was just a small boy at the time, so it was hard for me to realize how much work she was putting in.”
Although feeding a chapter of 60 students three meals a day from Monday to Friday may seem like a daunting task, Mattie Lou Fredericks cooked for nearly 100 brothers at a time.
“I remember every night around 5 p.m. the sweet aroma that filled this house while she cooked,” Kenny Fredericks said. “Sometimes the lines of brothers waiting to get into the kitchen would become so long that she would have to work two shifts per meal.”
Growing up in an African-American family in Richmond Heights, OH, Fredericks said his family never had a lot of money, but that money was never the factor that tied Zeta Beta Tau and the Fredericks family together.
“I don’t get paid much here, but I do it for the appreciation,” Fredericks said. “When people smile and say thank you, that’s what makes it all worth it.”
Despite the cultural differences that may set him and the mostly Jewish fraternity brothers apart, Fredericks said he prides himself on the relationships he has built with the residents of the house over the years, becoming more than just a cook and more of a parent figure.
“Kenny leaves me a plate of dinner outside of my door every night when he realizes I missed dinner for class,” ZBT house resident Mike Perchick said. “Even without being asked, he makes sure that I get fed every night. It’s because he actually cares about us. We’re like a family.”
Fredericks shares Perchick’s perception of ZBT.
“I love how we all eat together every night at five,” he said. “That’s what’s so special about this fraternity, the togetherness. We are like a unit. We are one.”
Jordan Levy may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.