While Captain Jack Sparrow may have boasted a diet of pure rum on the screen, Johnny Depp needed real food to get him through his long days on set. Luckily for Depp, Bruin Plate Head Chef Kevin Aiello was there to feed the entire cast and crew of “Pirates of the Caribbean” with his catering company, The Cast Supper.
Aiello’s cooking career began about 35 years ago. Since graduating from trade school, he’s gone from the beaches of Hawaii to the ice cream business in Derry, N.H. Finally, he’s landed himself the role of head chef at UCLA’s Bruin Plate, the newest dining hall on the Hill, which officially opened to the public on Monday.
Aiello said his original interest in cooking came out of his disdain for traditional schoolwork. Following his time at trade school, he went to work at Bobby McGee’s in Hawaii.
When his job with the restaurant chain brought him to the L.A. area, he quickly found himself enamored with the person-to-person interactions of on-set catering business. At the age of 24, he borrowed as much money as he could, bought a catering truck and called his business The Cast Supper.
“We did a lot of barbecues, and I liked to bring in entertainment like live music,” Aiello said. “I would come down out of the truck and ask them, ‘What do you need to get you through the day?’ I really just wanted to feed their needs.”
While working as a caterer, he provided food for a number of high-profile film and commercial shoots. Among these shoots were Britney Spears’ first two music videos, Michael Jordan commercials and the film “Maverick,” starring Jodie Foster.
Aiello said he didn’t typically interact extensively with the stars, but that supporting the casts and crews through their long days was a satisfying experience. Bruce Pearson, the general manager of the Covel Commons dining hall, said Aiello’s congenial personality is what sets him apart in the dining hall environment.
“The way he works with people really had a lasting effect on the types of relationships he had with the team because he’s so passionate and positive,” Pearson said. “He was able to make an impact with the team that helped them improve their performance and care more about the job.”
Aiello’s contributions at UCLA have also extended past kitchen relations and manifested in Bruin favorite recipes. One such dish is the Monte Bianco sundae at Cafe 1919, which Aiello created and said was a salute to his New Hampshire ice cream parlor, Moo’s Place.
After 15 years in catering, Aiello decided it was time to move onto other things. He returned to his hometown in the Boston area, attended an intensive weeklong ice cream preparation program at Penn State and partnered with a few of his old high school friends to open a New England-style ice cream parlor in Derry, N.H.
Aiello’s family, however, was unable to stay in the harsh New England weather, so they relocated back to Southern California when Aiello was offered a position as a sous chef at UCLA. In the last four years, he has worked his way from the standard dining halls to Cafe 1919 to Hedrick Test Kitchen and finally to the position of head chef of Bruin Plate.
Aiello said cooking for students has been a very gratifying experience, especially since he has taken over a residential restaurant committed to helping students make healthier choices.
“I think one of the misconceptions of Bruin Plate is this word ‘healthy.’ Sure, we’re watching our salts, oils and using wholesome premium ingredients,” Aiello said. “If you’re going to spend the time studying, why not load your brain with food that’s going to help you think and do well?”
Bruin Plate’s menu has a centralized focus on farm-to-table food. Daryl Ansel, director of food and beverage for UCLA Dining Services, said they try to experiment with more wholesome types of grains, lean meats and a broader spectrum of fruits and vegetables. He said the desire for fresher, healthier options was a concept the students themselves had asked for through the Test Kitchen experience.
Third-year economics student Christine Cocheteux said Bruin Plate has become one of her favorite dining experiences on the Hill. During the restaurant’s soft opening, she visited about 15 times. For Cocheteux, the fresh ingredients and the personable staff are what keeps her coming back.
“If I can go to B-Plate, I will go there versus the other dining halls,” Cocheteux said. “You can definitely tell that all the cooks try really hard and the staff overall really cares.”
Aiello said he believes he ultimately made the right choice when he picked culinary trade school over his initial alternative of computing, since he has discovered his two loves in life are food and people. Pearson said these passions are evident in Aiello’s work at Bruin Plate.
“I love what he’s done with the menu at Bruin Plate. He’s really put his heart and soul into it,” Pearson said. “It takes a special kind of personality to bring that out in food, and he has that.”