John Steiding’s memories of Sigma Nu at Wittenberg College in Ohio include the “accidental trip” to Florida for Spring Break, lip-synching contests during Greek Week, and the time he and a few pledge brothers planted a “for sale” sign on the university president’s lawn.
“As I have grown older, however, Sigma Nu has become to mean much more to me,” said Steiding, now an acclaimed chef who has served presidents and celebrities over the past three decades. “My memories of my fraternity days were cut short…but they were meaningful.”
And it was the brotherhood of Sigma Nu whom he credits with likely saving his life.
Just weeks after pledging Sigma Nu in 1991 and still in the process of getting to know his new brothers, Steiding suffered a personal tragedy. A close childhood friend had been murdered, and Steiding’s parents were frantically trying to reach him on campus.
After hours of trying to contact someone at the university, they reached the Sigma Nu commander, who promised he would find Steiding. And he did.
On a Super Bowl Sunday, the commander walked into the common room where the brothers had gathered for the kickoff…and turned off the television.
“Can you imagine?” Steiding says incredulously. “He told the assembled group I was in a bad way, and I needed my new brothers to help me.”
The football game was quickly forgotten, and his brothers did what families do: take care of each other. Three remained with him at all times, rotating in shifts to ensure he was never alone until his father arrived the next day to bring him home.
Calls were made to professors to excuse absences, his only suit was “express cleaned” to be ready for the funeral, and watching the Super Bowl was shelved.
“They saved me…and I’m not sure if they ever truly knew that by sitting with me, making sure I was ok, that they really, truly saved my life,” Steiding said.
He remained at Wittenberg College for two more years until the call of the kitchen came for him to follow his life’s dream.
Perfecting the Art of Cooking and Cuisine
From his earliest memories as a boy in Michigan, Steiding understood how simple ingredients come together to create memorable meals.
He told his mom when he was eight, he would be a chef. At age eleven, on his first camp-out with his Boy Scout troop, he volunteered to prepare meals for the weekend outing.
“Nothing quite like cooking for a group of young teenage boys who could tie you up in the woods if they didn’t like what you made for dinner!” Steiding recalls, laughing at the memories of his early days in front of a hot stove.
His first paid gig in what would lead to many jobs in the restaurant business was washing dishes for $2 an hour (plus a free medium pizza each shift). Even then, Steiding knew being around good food and appreciative patrons was where he belonged.
“By sixteen, I was able to make anything on the menu from pizza to T-bone steaks,” he said. “By eighteen, I had a set of keys and was a manager.”
After taking a hiatus from college, Steiding arrived in Dayton, Ohio, where a master chef took him under his wing to provide the foundational knowledge for “culinary-based” cooking. There he learned to make the “mother sauces” from scratch and expertly use a knife in prepping ingredients.
Soon, his mentor ushered him out the door, confident in his protégé’s abilities as a chef. Climbing the culinary ladder meant a host of jobs in the early years as he learned and perfected his craft. Sous chef, junior chef, line leader, expediter, and eventually executive chef…Steiding experienced them all.
Over a career filled with unique experiences, he has prepared meals for more celebrities and politicians than he can count, including presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, and First Lady Laura Bush, who Steiding recalls as “very gracious and truly charming.” Sen. Bob Dole, who recently passed away, was also an appreciative guest at Steiding’s table.
After years of working in restaurants, private organizations, and elsewhere across the country, Steiding now lives in the metro Atlanta area. He opened his own company, Dinner for Two, a few years ago, and is now a private chef and cooking instructor (Cook with Chef John).
Looking to the future, Steiding plans to have a stand-alone facility for culinary services, with space for a “studio kitchen” to continue to teach online.
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed him to reach even more people virtually, and he has hosted several online cooking programs for Sigma Nu alumni in the past year. His connection to the Fraternity remains as strong as it did decades ago.
“I still remember my first night at the house with my new brothers…sitting up to the wee hours talking and realizing just how much I had in common with these guys,” Steiding recalls.