Everybody loves Bill Kollas from Peirce’s fusion station. The patron saint is known among Kenyon students for his tasty cooking and his gregarious disposition, his quick wit and his unmistakable laugh. He’s a Peirce fixture, a campus tradition, a much-needed voice of reason in the hustle and bustle of mealtime chatter and overly busy days.
But not everyone knows Bill. The Collegian was lucky enough to catch up with him for a few minutes on a break between meals last Saturday afternoon.
Hey, Bill. How long have you been working at Kenyon?
Almost four years now.
What inspired you to work here?
It was actually a random phone call. Someone recruited me. And they’re not even here anymore.
Interesting. What were you doing before Kenyon?
I was technically in between things. Had been working in the ranching business in Clarke, Colorado.
So how did you get into food?
It’s kind of like the third career chapter of my life. Straight out of high school I joined the Army. That was my first career. Then I ended up in the IT business right here in Ohio, for about 18 years.
When did you enlist in the Army?
Reagan was president.
And what did you do?
I was an intelligence analyst.
Did you always know you wanted to join the Army?
I kind of did. I was born into a military family. Downstate New York, Newburgh. Right across the street from USMA West Point. In retrospect I don’t know if I would’ve made that decision.
You must have moved around a lot as a kid.
Saw the Atlantic and Pacific before I was nine. It’s kind of a mnemonic. That’s how I remember when something happened — [by asking,] “where was I living when it happened?” ’72 Olympics, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming — I was living in North Dakota. Woodstock, you know, I was in Southern California. I was on the wrong end of the country for that.
And what about when you were serving? Where did that take you?
You could just follow the dots on the map. From here to Missouri to Texas to Frankfurt, Germany. If you’ve talked to me, you’ve probably heard me joke about that. I got to live in Germany for nearly 10 years on somebody else’s dime.
What was your favorite part about living there?
Most people would say beer. Twenty years ago I probably would have said beer. But I think the scenery and the culture and the history. I mean, they’ve got buildings that got blown up and rebuilt and they’re still older than the entire country we’re sitting in now.
And your least favorite part?
The rain. Sleep deprivation during deployments.
Sounds like you’ve been to a lot of places.
I don’t know if I claim any place as home anymore, if that makes sense.
So the Army, and then 18 years of IT. What made you switch to cooking?
I wouldn’t use the phrase “burnout,” but I was perilously close to it. It felt like I was just beating my head against the wall. So I went back to school and got a degree in culinary arts. One of the little community colleges on the Oregon coast.
Do you remember which one?
That must have been an experience, going back to school as an adult.
(chuckles) As an “alternative student”? It was definitely interesting.
What’s your favorite thing to cook?
Have you ever asked a parent who their favorite child is?
But if aliens were invading the planet, and you had to make one dish to save the human race…
I’d probably make something with curry. Chickpea curry.
What if they ask for dessert?
I like banana bread. I don’t know if that counts as a dessert.
I noticed you have some pretty cool tattoos. Can you tell us a little about them?
(pointing to arm) That’s actually Bruce Lee quoting the Buddha.
“As you think, so shall you become.”
As the Buddha said it, it was, “What you think, you become.” But I like the way Bruce Lee said it better.
Do you see yourself getting more tattoos?
Oh, probably. I mean, if you look at some of the people in the food business, I’m barely qualified to be a beginner. I’m just thinking about the sheer amount of them I’ve seen on campus this year.
Do any of them stick out to you?
I think all of them, because every one of them is uniquely personal and has some meaning, and probably the most authentic and open people you’ll ever meet have tattoos. And they’ll tell you about them if you just ask.
I totally agree. People with tattoos usually have some interesting things to say.
Do you have any recommendations for students dining in Peirce?
I guess maybe one suggestion, a lot of people don’t know about it: There’s a bulletin board right over there, just before you go into Thomas [Hall]. It’s a little suggestion box with little green and white cards.
Do you guys actually read those?
Any tips on the panini press?
Keep the temp on 350.
Do you have a message for the kids? What would you have wanted to tell yourself at our age?
Thinking about it sounds cliche, but a lot of people, when their stress level goes up, their confidence kind of drops off, especially around midterms and finals. And I’m constantly telling everybody that you got this. You got this far, there’s no reason to stop now. Don’t give up on this.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I did the math one day, and if you come here right out of high school and graduate right around the ripe old age of 22, minus breaks and stuff, you spend 20% of your life going back and forth on Middle Path and eating at Peirce and doing things on this hilltop. And my goal is to not ever be a negative part of that. I do what I can to cheer people up. Keep people motivated.