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Esther Phillips: 'Never has a bad day'

After 32 years of working in dining services at Stanford, Esther Phillips has the mechanics of her work down to perfection. She reads Bon Appetit magazine searching out ingredient ideas for the salads that she and her staff assemble each day. Still, Florence Moore Dining, where Phillips is in charge of ordering food for the pantry, has one of the best records on campus for controlling food costs. When problems arise, she finds solutions, even if that means doing work that doesn't fall within her job description, said her boss, Hagai Narkis, Florence Moore Dining manager. "If somebody needs a plate, she gets a plate," he said. "Students never eat a bad meal when it is prepared or designed by Esther," adds Barbara Whittaker, service manager.

But what coworkers seem to most admire about what Phillips brings to her work can only be described as soul.

Phillips starts each workday at 6 a.m. by unlocking the kitchen doors and switching on an "oldies" radio station before she starts baking muffins and scones for breakfast. Music and laughter reverberate throughout the kitchen and serving area -- "Twist and Shout" bounced off the sunny yellow tile walls on a recent afternoon -- and Phillips has been known to dance as she goes about her work.

"I cannot speak enough of the pleasure she brings to the work environment," said Joline McQuillan, the dining hall's former general manager. "Esther never has a bad day," adds Whittaker. "If she does, it never shows."

"Esther is extremely positive in her approach to life and work," Narkis said. "What the difference is, I don't know yet."

Phillips herself compares the process of baking breakfast breads, pastries and desserts and making salads for the students, who eat up to 1,000 meals a day at Florence Moore, to "cooking a big family dinner at home. Everyone is pitching in."

Phillips was born in Redwood City and grew up on a ranch in Mountain View with her three brothers and three sisters. ("Bayshore Highway was a two-lane dirt road back then," she said.) She came to work in 1971 at Stern Hall, where she stayed for two decades. At Stern, a "wonderful" manager, Virginia Varkonyi, encouraged employees to think outside their job descriptions, work as a team and take responsibility, Phillips said. "We'd have done anything for her. We gave her more than 100 percent."

Phillips was promoted and came to Florence Moore in 1991. Stern had been like a second family, she said. "When I left, it was like leaving home for the second time."

Florence Moore staff welcomed her, she said. And the fact that the dining hall is connected to the dorm creates a residential feel, she said. "I like being with the students."

Many of them come to breakfast in pajamas and slippers and tell her they consider her to be a second mom, she said. Phillips said she keeps an eye out for homesick freshmen and tries to lift their spirits by offering to cook dishes from home. (The kitchen has served huevos rancheros as a result of one such request, she said.)

Outside of work, Phillips and her husband, Frank, love to travel in a 1950 Mercury that they drive to vintage car shows. Phillips said she plans to take her husband to Hawaii with the Amy Blue Award money.

"I feel like a movie star winning an Oscar," Phillips said of the award. "But this is better."

Phillips begins her days at Florence Moore to the tunes of an oldies radio station as she bakes muffins for breakfast. "Students never eat a bad meal when it is prepared or designed by Esther," a colleague said. Photo: L.A. Cicero

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