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After 15 years, Spencer Tan has retired from serving as a chef for BYU–Hawaii

Chef Tan posing with his kitchen utensils.
Tan introduced a lot of Asian foods to the cafeteria, he said, and enjoyed the variety of different foods and cultures.

Prao Rongthong, a junior accounting major from Thailand and student Banyan Hall Dining worker, said Chef Spencer Tan would never forget to say hello to her when he sees her. She said seeing him always makes her feel better whenever she is feeling down or having a bad day.

Sharini Shanmuganathan, a junior psychology major from Malaysia and another dining hall worker, said she was struggling one day with personal issues, and Tan took her to a Japanese restaurant to ensure she felt better. “He made me feel that I was not alone … and he was a friend to me.”

When his students are having a hard time, Tan shared, he would take them out to dinner to cheer them up. Students can’t focus on their work if they’re feeling depressed, he added, and it’s not right for them to work in that condition. “Without them, we cannot run this place.”

On July 21, Spencer Tan retired from working as a chef for the BYU–Hawaii cafeteria for 15 years. On July 25, students, coworkers and other associates celebrated his service in the new Banyan Dining Hall's private dining room.

His culinary calling

Before working at BYUH, Tan said he worked as a chef at the Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time, he kept receiving calls from BYUH Food Services Director David Keala, asking him to come work as a chef at BYUH, he shared. He told Keala he was satisfied with his current job and that his family was already rooted in Salt Lake City.

However, Tan said he felt a strong spiritual impression to leave Utah to work at BYUH. Initially, he told Keala he would only stay for three years and return to Utah. After his arrival and during his first two weeks, Tan shared that he was still feeling upset about having to move to Hawaii.

Then one day, Tan said a Malaysian student named Li Mei Low, the president of the Singapore/Malaysian Club, approached him about serving Malaysian food at the cafe for Malaysia’s Independence Day on Aug. 31. Upon meeting her, he said he learned this student was the daughter of a man he had taught on his mission in his hometown of Kuala Lumpur.

Tan said he was shocked and learned Low was preparing to serve her mission, which she eventually did. It was then he stopped questioning his prompting to work at BYUH, he said. “I was so touched to see the labors of my mission bear fruit.” Tan said his experience with Low pushed him to become the advisor to the Singapore/Malaysia Club.

Five years ago, Tan said he planned to resign after his last child graduated from BYUH in 2017. He said him and his wife prayed and felt it wasn’t time for him to quit just yet. Eventually, he said he learned there would be a new cafeteria built. While observing the construction of the new cafeteria, he said received an impression from the Lord confirming he needed to remain working there.

Serving the people

Upon being hired, Tan told his boss he was there to serve the Lord. “This is the Lord’s campus, and we are all his stewards.”

While attending job training at BYU in Provo, Tan said the cafeteria only served rice when they served an Asian dish whereas at BYUH it is served daily. One year, Tan said Asian students were withdrawing their meal plans because they did not like the food being served in the cafeteria.

As a result, he started the Chinese New Year dinner where the cafeteria served a variety of Asian foods during the Chinese New Year, he shared. Tan said he introduced a lot of Asian foods to the cafeteria and enjoyed the variety of different foods and cultures.

Other than working with students, Tan said serving members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Lord was a highlight of his career. It was a humbling experience witnessing how gracious and humble the apostles were up close, he shared.

In 2009, he said Elder David A. Bednar spoke at a devotional and ate at the cafeteria. Elder Bednar was very humble, greeted his guests and openly expressed his gratitude to the servers, he added.

During the Laie Hawaii Temple renovation and dedication, Tan said President Thomas S. Monson came to eat at the cafeteria. After he finished eating, he said the servers would sit in his chair, excited to remember him having eaten there.

Working with students

Upon reflecting on his time at BYUH, Tan said he enjoyed working with the students, who he sees as future leaders of the Church. Outside of cooking, he said he taught his student workers two important principles to lifelong success: honesty and hard work. In the real world, they have to be dependable and accountable, he added.

Chef Tan working with student food service employees
Outside of cooking, Tan said he taught his student workers two important principles to lifelong success: honesty and hard work.

Tan added he taught his students to use prayer to guide them in achieving their goals. “The more you pray, the easier it is to be successful.”

Shanmuganathan shared Tan taught her how to be accountable for her work and being humble. Even if someone has worked in the cafeteria for a long time, she said it’s important for them to show respect to those who haven’t.

Students need to feel recognized for their hard work and a sense of pride, Tan said. He said he would reward his students for their hard work with a gift card for two scoops of ice cream at the C-Store. Tan said he feels accomplished when students decide to stay and work at the cafeteria one semester after another.

Instructing and guiding his students allows him to bond with them, said Tan, but he said he also sees them as his friends rather than just coworkers.

A friend to all

Shanmuganathan said Tan's easy-going personality creates a more friendly work environment for her. Everyone should know the work environment can be a friendly working space, she added.

Rongthong said Tan would encourage her and her coworkers to go out on dates because he cares a lot about their future. Shanmuganthan said she sees Tan as a fatherly figure, and it reminds her of home whenever she talks to him. She also said it’s the same reason why she decided to continue working at the cafeteria.

Keala said he and Tan had been friends for 42 years and attended BYUH together. During their time as classmates, Keala said he and Tan both attended a Japanese course in which they struggled. Their struggle pushed them to study together and become close friends, he added.

One interesting thing about Tan, said Keala, is he is an avid BYU in Provo Cougar fan. He would find any opportunity and accessible option around campus to watch BYU football games. On one occasion, Keala said he and Tan got to meet some BYU football players visiting Laie during the off-season.

From his experience, Tan said nothing, not even money, is as important as family and friends. Tan shared that he and his wife plan to return to Salt Lake City but it isn’t sure as to what he will do next.