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By Gus Bode

For less than $20 and 30 minutes in the kitchen, one chef is trying to make dinner more than a pit stop at the microwave.

Chef Bill Connors, head chef at SIUC and one of roughly 2,000 owners of the Neighborhood Coop, volunteers his time and culinary expertise to help slow down dinner with fast, economical options. Every other Friday, Connors creates a recipe to serve a family of four out of ingredients found at the Coop for less than $20 total. He greets customers as they enter the store with recipe cards and samples for the Rush Hour Dinners program.

‘I have a passion for food and serving good food,’ Connors said. ‘It’s kind of to say that you can shop at the Coop and get an economic and nutritious dinner. It’s all about getting the family dinner going again.’

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Connors said the program is an imitation of what coops across the country have been doing, including the price, time and amount criteria. He said he hopes to submit some of his recipes to the national program.

‘We’re trying to do our own little Carbondale thing here and make it our own,’ Connors said.

New recipes are the most requested item from coop shoppers, said Lisa Smith, brand development manager at the coop.

‘Coops have a long tradition of being dedicated to the community that they serve in because our owners … live in this region,’ Smith said.

His recipe on Friday ‘- smokin’ vegetarian chili, made from Coop ingredients for roughly $15 ‘- featured dark chocolate chips and chipotle seasoning.

The chili dirtied a chopping board, one pot and utensils. He said he tries to keep the recipes limited to one or two pans.

Saundra Baker, 47, of Murphysboro, said she wanted to take the pot home with her. She said her children do not like a lot of meat and she had to cut most meat from her diet for health reasons, so the vegetarian chili recipe was perfect for her.

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‘I’m going to have to make some of this and take it in to work for a special day to feed everybody,’ Baker said. ‘His food is awesome.’

She took a recipe card before she headed in to the store and said she would stop by to pick up more recipes from Connors in the future.

Connors’ vegetarian wife and experience cooking for students made him familiar with a variety of dietary needs, Smith said. She said she asked him to do the Rush Hour Dinners program primarily because of his way with customers.

‘He’s just such a pleasure to work with,’ she said. ‘He has such a vibrant personality. He’s just really good working one-on-one with the customers.’

Although Connors began his cooking career to make ends meet when he first started a family, his passion for food soon earned him a place at the Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago, he said. Less than a year after graduating, he was back in Carbondale, working at the university, where he was promoted to head chef in 1996, he said.

He said he enjoys cooking in front of the students, which allows him an opportunity to hear their stories like an old-fashioned family dinner hour.

‘It’s a lot of fun,’ he said. ‘That’s why I do the cooking classes here, too – with everybody gathered around and I teach them how to make something they might not normally make.’

Audrey Wagner, 41, of Carbondale said Connors helped her overcome her aversion to bell peppers in one of the cooking classes he hosted at the Coop.

‘He showed us a wide range of dishes in our class,’ she said. ‘He’s a fun teacher.’

She said she never knew he worked at the university.

‘That must make for better dorm food than I had when I lived in the dorms,’ she said.

At the university level, Connors helped introduce the Farm to Fork program, which uses university-raised meat on campus. He said he would like to introduce locally grown produce as well.

Slow and local define his cooking, he said. He also said he wants to reintroduce families to sit-down dinners with good ingredients.

‘I feel like being a chef is one of the best jobs in the world because it’s all about pleasing other people,’ he said. ‘I get a lot of pleasure back from people.’

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