Behind the Street Cart counter on the second floor of the Dobbs University Center (DUC) is a face familiar to every Emory student. Today, he carefully chops carrots and sprouts with expert precision, separating each vegetable into an organized array of equal sections. He sports a black apron, shirt and beret, which sits atop his shaved head with a slight tilt. His eyes are determined and focused; his gaze never faltering from the task at hand. The meat next to him sizzles, calling that it is ready to be taken out of the pan. He scoops the succulent pieces out of the pan and onto cut pieces of a baguette, then adds the sectioned piles of veggies and finishes the dish off by drizzling a sweet and spicy Vietnamese sauce over the steaming pile. VoilÃ , BÃ¡nh MÃ¬ sandwiches for all, another work of art from the Street Cart chef.
He finally unlocks his gaze from the food, looking up at the hungry diners in front of him.
“Hey, hey, hey, Goldy and Meredith in the house,” he yells at two girls walking by.
They smile and giggle, calling back, “Hey Pasta John!”
That is Pasta John whose real name is John Wilson, the eccentric and charismatic cook posted at the Street Cart station in the DUC. A 17-year veteran of the DUC staff, Wilson began working at the DUC in 1992, but took a short break in 1996 to train cooks at Applebee’s in Tampa, Fla. He returned to Emory in 1999 where he created the nickname Pasta John while working at the pasta station in order to distinguish himself from the three other Johns working alongside him. He has since worked his way up from a pizza-cooking, dishwasher to the head chef of the multi-cuisine Street Cart station where he is recognized and admired by students as a jovial and caring fixture in the DUC.
“After we came up to his station and he asked us where we were from, we were surprised the next day when we went to the DUC and he remembered our name, where we were from, everything!” College freshmen Meredith Stedman and Goldy Tenreiro-Braschi say.
“I’ll be like 50 feet away from him and he’ll call me over and ask me how my day was, ask me how my week was and reminds me to be safe,” freshman Fiona Zhao said. “He made me feel welcomed, especially during the first couple of weeks when there weren’t a lot of people to talk to.”
Wilson presents a jovial and lighthearted face to the DUC crowds, but there’s a more serious story behind that image. It starts with how committed he is to his work. Every morning, Wilson wakes up at 4:15 a.m. to the sound of an alarm. After collecting himself, he gives one of his co-workers a wake up call before doing his morning Bible study. He then cranks out 100 sit-ups in order to combat, what he calls, his “big gut because I’m a beer drinker.” Wilson then showers and leaves his house at 5:30 a.m. to catch the 5:50 a.m. train. He then gets on the 6 a.m. shuttle and reaches Emory at 6:45 a.m. This process occurs Monday through Friday, and Wilson says he’s “got it down pat.”
Yet, Wilson’s life wasn’t always so structured, especially during his early years. Born on Oct. 28, 1960 at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla., Wilson was one of 12 children raised by a single mother. Wilson said that they just had barely enough growing up, though he never complained. During his high school years, Wilson never had any college expectations.
“After high school I went straight to work, hanging out, being a little young teenager. Partying, making wrong decisions and having repercussions for those wrong decisions that I made.”
Wilson’s bad decisions worsened, evolving into heavy drug usage, particularly an addiction to crack cocaine. In 1986, Wilson hit a low point.
“One day, I was having a minor heart attack, but I still had some crack left to smoke, so instead of me going and trying to get help and dial 911, I remember myself limping toward that rock to smoke it, didn’t care whether I died or not.”
Wilson survived and, during his recuperation, concluded that he needed help. So he turend to God for help.
“I couldn’t do this on my own,” he said.
According to Wilson, the very next day, police raided his home because he had sold dope to an undercover cop, the ultimate wake up call to a drug offender.
After spending 66 days in prison, Wilson decided to change his ways on his release, electing to choose God over drugs. He decided he had to get away from Florida, so he came to Atlanta to change his environment and meet new people.
Cooking was never one of Wilson’s perceived career paths, as he remembered himself around the grill when he was younger, but never actually cooking.
But apparently cooking was in his blood and Wilson credits his current position at the DUC to his family’s proclivity to cook.
“Everybody in my household can cook, EVERYBODY,” he said.
Wilson’s first work experience in the kitchen was in 1978 where he worked for a nursing home opening and heating up cans. By 1992, Wilson came to Atlanta to work at the DUC as a pizza maker and dishwasher.
He’s seen the DUC transform first hand, recalling that eight years ago, it was not challenging to cook here because the food, according to him, “sucked.”
Wilson credits the change with the introduction of a new chef, who implemented new dishes that challenged Wilson and the other staff in new ways. Wilson relished the opportunity to overcome these challenges and, now, has become a connoisseur with a “gameplan.” His favorite dish to prepare is still pasta Alfredo. Nowadays, Wilson has strong, positive feelings about the DUC.
“The DUC is – excuse my expression – The DUC is the SHIT.”
Wilson’s colleagues admire his work ethic and lively attitude, though it took time to get use to his ways. Mama Angela, who started working at the DUC in 2005, formed a strong relationship with Wilson, though, it wasn’t always that way.
“I’m gonna be honest with you. When I first started working with Pasta John, I didn’t like him, but then as we started working together and growing together, and as the years passed by, I fell in love with him and now he’s my big brother,” she said.
Mitch McGee, the food service manager at the DUC for the last year and a half, had to acclimate to Wilson’s style, but now has nothing but respect and admiration for Wilson.
“They had to take me aside and say you just got to watch him work and see how the students love him. It took me a month or so, but he’s a master at what he does,” he said.
Wilson’s organized work in the DUC reflects his overall change in lifestyle. Once radical and disordered, Wilson rehabbed on his own after prison, skipping any type of outside treatment program by instead developing structure, sticking to a daily routine and giving himself to God.
“Because I have faith, and I know I’m gonna be OK. I know it ain’t nothing I can’t do through him who’s in me, and that’s God.”
Wilson’s infectious appreciation extends to the Emory community as well, particularly the students he cooks for every day. His bubbly attitude can be heard, as he yells across the DUC greetings to familiar faces, almost always provoking a smile.
“I try to make people feel comfortable, I greet them and sing and all that, let them know that we are family away from your family,” Wilson said. “I know how it feels because I’m not at home either.”
Wilson’s reputation exceeds him, as he is also known to be quite the party animal among students.
“Ask around fraternity row about Pasta John, I’ve partied in every house on frat row,” he said, yet he’s clear that he doesn’t make partying at the fraternity houses a habit, popping up only once in the while. And while he is fine with drinking, he remains steadfast in never touching drugs again and hopes that his past battle with addiction influences others not to use.
Wilson’s shift ends at 3:15 p.m. every day, but he doesn’t leave until 3:45 p.m. because he runs into so many people he knows. Wilson’s one desire after work is to relax. Every day after work, Wilson makes the lengthy journey home to Memorial Drive in Decatur, Ga., generally reading books related to Christianity (he’s currently reading Joyce Meyer). Once he gets home, or what he likes to call “the sanctuary,” Wilson cranks up the music, turns on the T.V. and pops open a fresh 211 Steel Reserve high-gravity beer.
Soothing sounds of old R&B, such as Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle, play in the background as Wilson sips his beer through a straw, a practice he picked up from his ex-wife.
“She say you get quicker results and … and she was right!” he said.
Wilson is currently divorced, but has two sons and a daughter whom he loves deeply. His eldest son, who is 24 years old, recently moved to Atlanta in order to purse a career in rap, something Wilson stands behind.
“If it’s not for them, they going to recognize that it’s not for them but they need your support and not your criticism,” he said.
Wilson recently voted for the first time in 52 years, saying that this was the first time he felt like an American citizen. In the past, he was misled to believe that he couldn’t vote because he had a drug felony charge. Yet the greatest accomplishment for Wilson comes not from the challenges he had overcome, but from what he does as a fixture in the DUC.
“Coming here and knowing that I make students smile – that’s real satisfaction right there.”
– Contact Armaan Nathani at