Finding new flavors: Chef reflects on her journey to ISU fraternities


Tiffany Herring/Iowa State Daily

Connie Maxwell serves as the fraternity chef for the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. Maxwell and her husband both served in the military and lived in California, Texas and Germany before settling in Iowa.

Sarah Muller

In a household full of college boys, one woman is in charge. Connie Maxwell is Lambda Chi Alpha’s chef or, as fraternity members call her, manager of men, which spells out “mom.”

Prior to taking her current position, Maxwell had worked at many other interesting jobs.   

In the 1980s, the farm crisis caused a decline in Midwest jobs, so the military was a popular option for many — including Maxwell. President Ronald Reagan put an emphasis on fighting communism and the Soviet Union, while the government recruited volunteers to learn Russian and become experts in the culture. 

Maxwell stepped up, along with her husband, Douglas Maxwell. The couple met while in the military, and it took six weeks between the time they met and the time they married.

With careers in the Army, the Maxwell’s traveled extensively. They’ve lived in California and Texas and spent six years in Germany, where they had their son Alex.

“It was a challenge having to move around a lot,” said Alex Maxwell, member of Lambda Chi Alpha and senior in computer engineering. “Now it’s made us more diverse and more understanding. It helped influence our culture.”

Some of Alex’s first memories are from Germany, where he lived for three years. Alex followed his parents footsteps by joining the military before coming to Iowa State. 

After Connie spent four years in the military and her husband six, they became students when they were discharged. Connie went on to earn her degree in facilities and Douglas an accounting degree.

However, changes in technology threatened her job. In order to retain her job, Connie needed to return to school.

“I was thinking one night that if I was going to have to go back to school again, I’m going to go back for something I like,” Connie said. “I went back and became a chef, so at 45-years-old I was in a classroom full of 18-year-olds.”

After completing three years at Des Moines Area Community College, Connie received her culinary degree and began working in high-end Des Moines restaurants. While she enjoyed her job, it did not mix well with her home life. Connie had a husband, a son and two daughters at home, so being a chef in the evenings didn’t allow much family time.

Connie signed with a company that allowed her to cook at Grand View University in Des Moines. She found the work satisfying and enjoyed those she was serving.

“A lot of kids theses day come to school having lived on fast food because of how their lifestyle was,” Connie said. “I’m doing home-cooking food, and they are learning new things, finding new flavors and discovering that not all foods come through a window.”

Always wanting her own business, Connie started catering on the side. From small gatherings to busy families who didn’t have time to cook, she would gather food and use her customers’ kitchens to provide meals. She has continued her catering business throughout the years.

Soon Connie’s company lost its contract with Grand View, causing her to lose her job. In the mean time, Alex returned from the Army and began his education at Iowa State.

To enhance his networking, he decided to pledge Lambda Chi Alpha. After growing up with a chef for a mom, his standards were high. The fraternity’s did not meet them.

“Being the ambitious person I was, I knew she was looking for something new,” Alex said. “I didn’t want to be the one to get her hired, but she was ridiculously over-qualified for what they were looking for. It was an obvious thing they would hire her.”

It only took one test run for a Sunday meal for fraternity members to hire Connie. 

On a trip to Minnesota with her husband, Connie was killing time when she passed a furniture store. In need of a dresser, she decided to take a look inside. The worker assisting Connie asked about her profession. The worker was astonished because the worker’s son was the president of the Sigma Pi fraternity at Iowa State and was in need of a chef.

Exchanging contact information, Connie didn’t hear from Sigma Pi for months until school started up. Before Sigma Pi hired Connie, members were eating catered meals, but Connie could not only make them homemade meals but also cut their budget by 50 percent.

“She makes really good meals and a really nice person, very friendly,” said Corey Hermann, steward of Sigma Pi.

Connie was unsure of her ability to handle two fraternities but realized it was worth it in the end.

“Every chef has their own reason they cook,” Connie said. “There are chefs that will stylize food and make it look just gorgeous, and they want you to look at it. I want to make food you can not wait to eat.”

Starting every morning at 6:30, she cooks a hot breakfast for Lambda Chi Alpha.

“We implemented a hot breakfast when we were having trouble with grades,” Connie said. “I thought if we had a hot breakfast, maybe more people would get up and get productive for the day, and our grades have improved.”

Lunch rolls around next and does not slow down Connie. While not every member eats breakfast and lunch at the fraternity, Connie cooks dinner for 80 people. Cooking all the food in the Lambda Chi Alpha kitchen, she packs up Sigma Pi’s portions, loads up her truck and assists Sigma Pi members in serving it. Returning to Lambda Chi Alpha, she then serves their dinner.

On Monday nights, both houses have chapter meetings, which mean every member comes to the house for dinner. On these nights, Connie makes a total of 120 three-course meals.

“People say what is your favorite thing to cook, my answer is whatever you want to eat,” Connie said.

In the midst of all the cooking, Connie finds time to sit down with the Lambda Chi Alpha members and enjoy the meal she made.

“[The members] keep me young,” Connie said. “They keep me connected to the young culture, everything that’s going on in young culture, and that’s interesting to me.”

With her Lambda Chi Alpha title of mom, she assists the boys from preparing for interviews to giving the ones going into the military hair cuts.

“There is this whole family aspect that happens around living with all these guys,” Connie said. “I have 29 [roommates who are 20] that I interact with and exist with.”

Alex doesn’t mind her mothering his brothers in the house.

“It’s kind of funny that all my friends have my mom’s phone number and call her for anything,” Alex said. “She’s the kind of person when you meet her she can be your best friend basically, and she will be your best friend because she gets along with everybody.”

Staying in the Lambda Chi Alpha house all week, she reserves weekends for her husband in Des Moines.

“During the school year it has to be all focused on this is our short time together, the one night I’m home, or the weekend I’m home,” Connie said. “We talk on the phone every night, and we don’t allow time for fighting.”

Dedicating all of her time to the members of the fraternity, Connie hopes the boys will take away many lessons, such as the variety of flavors and tastes in the world. Morally, she teaches them respect for women and sees them practice it on a regular basis.

“I was looking for a job I that I could love, and I found one that loved me back,” Connie said.