His success story began when he was a young pot scrubber working at Bates College in 1992, a year before his graduation from Lewiston High School. By 1994, Owen Keene had tossed out the dish water in exchange for stocking the salad bar with fresh food. Soon after, he transitioned into the kitchen as a prep cook. The food service director at the time was big on education, Keene says, and when he was offered the opportunity to further his education at Central Maine Community College, he immediately enrolled.

Working his way up the ladder one position at a time, Keene took over executive chef duties at Bates College in 2009. When he looks back on his nearly 20-year career at Bates, he says he is very happy to be a chef — and is quite thankful he didn’t follow his initial calling to be an electrician. Now managing the college’s annual food budget of $2 million, Keene admits modestly, “I never expected to be in this position so soon.”

He oversees a staff of 25, plans and creates upward of 5,000 meals a day for close to 1,800 students, and also directs catered events.

Because of his CMCC education, Keene considers himself a well-rounded chef — meal planning, baking, sauteing, frying, nutritional guidance, food purchasing, catering and food safety are all incorporated into his day-to-day duties. And because of the broad spectrum of students, employees and ethnicities at the college, he said, “I’m really diverse as a cook, too.” Although he won’t claim to have just one specialty, he does admit to being partial to Mediterranean cuisine. “I definitely love it.”

Among the international recipes Keene shared with us was falafel, a Moroccan dish made with chick peas and served with a tahini yogurt sauce. Formed into little “meatballs,” they are deep fried and served sandwich-style in a pita pocket. Since the sauce is normally made with yogurt, he also shared a vegan, tofu-based alternative. It’s usually a dish that receives many compliments, he said. “A platter of fresh vegetables would be a great accompaniment,” he said, suggesting you include items such as sliced cucumber, sliced red onion, shredded romaine lettuce or assorted olives, all of which can be stuffed into your pita, as desired. For a side dish, he recommends “a nice couscous salad.” To see Keene make the falafel, go to sunjournal.com.

His second recipe is a Banh Mi (Vietnamese) burger that he loves. “You can pan sear the burgers to get a good crust, then finish in the oven,” he said. Served simply on a ciabatta roll, both he and his friends love this meal, which he usually serves with pickled onions, cilantro leaves, lime mayo (easily made by adding the zest of one lime and its juice to store-bought mayonnaise) and sliced cucumbers.

The dining staff is highly aware of food sensitivities, preferences and allergies, and provides a labeling system for each food prepared, Keene said. Gluten, lactose, pork or nuts, for example, are easily identified. From a personal standpoint, Keene himself can now empathize, since he has become lactose intolerant over the years. He said, “One of the good things here is we have a vegan bar — no dairy, no animal products, no honey.” Tofu cacciatore and teriyaki seitan (using a wheat-based substitute for beef) are two examples of dishes he often cooks for that station. He added that many ethnic dishes tend to focus less on dairy compared to a lot of American foods.

He said he has noticed Vietnamese food has become quite trendy these days. When asked why, he said it is because the food is generally healthy and fresher tasting, and because people seem to be more open to trying new things, thanks in part to the focus on new and unusual cuisine by the Food Network and the Cooking Channel (of which he admits to being a big fan).

“Since I started having a say in the menu, we’ve begun buying more fresh foods than frozen,” Keene said. He’s also proud of the college’s commitment to recycling and having a smaller carbon footprint. “We try to be very ‘green’ and we try not to throw any food away,” he said, often donating food to local soup kitchens, or sending it off to be composted or given to a local pig farmer. They also have a mug program, where students are given a coffee mug to use and re-use, cutting down on the use of Styrofoam and other disposable products.

Owen Keene’s Falafel

1 cup dried chick peas, soaked overnight (drain well)

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons of fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Salt to taste

Puree all ingredients in a food processor or meat grinder. Form into 1-ounce balls. In a 350-degree fryer, carefully drop falafel balls; fry for 3 minutes. Top with assorted sliced vegetables, if desired, and top with Tahini Yogurt Sauce

Tahini Yogurt Sauce

1 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup curry powder

2 tablespoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup lemon juice

2 teaspoons tahini paste

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup olive oil

Combine all ingredients and let set for at least 30 minutes. Chef’s note: To make this vegan, substitute Silken Tofu for yogurt and puree in food processor.

Owen Keene’s Banh Mi Burger

1/2 pound ground pork

1/2 pound ground beef (80/20%)

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon garlic chili paste (Sambal)

1 teaspoon red curry paste

2 green onions (scallion), chopped fine

1. Mix all ingredients together and let sit (marinade) for at least 30 minutes.

2. Make into 4 equal patties. Make a dimple in the middle of each patty to help them cook evenly.

3. Cook on medium high heat on a grill or fry pan.

4. Cook until 165 degrees. DO NOT undercook due to the ground pork in the burger.

5. Serve on ciabatta rolls, topped with cilantro leaves, lime mayo (easily made by adding the zest of one lime and its juice to store-bought mayonnaise) and sliced cucumbers. Excellent served with pickled red onion.

Pickled Red Onion side dish

1 red onion sliced thin

1 cup rice vinegar

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon sugar

Pinch of salt and pepper

Marinade all ingredients overnight (or microwave for one minute and let cool, to speed things up).

Owen Keene’s Curried Couscous Salad

1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons couscous

3/4 cup peas (fresh or frozen)

1/2 cup fresh cucumbers, peeled and diced

1 small carrot, finely shredded

Fresh parsley, 3/4 teaspoon

1 scallion, finely chopped

Couscous Salad Dressing

3 tablespoons oil olive

3/4 teaspoon cider vinegar

3/4 teaspoon sauce soy

3/4 teaspoon granulated sugar

3/4 teaspoon curry powder

Combine all ingredients. Chill.


Heat water to boil; add couscous. Cover and set aside for approximately 5 minutes. Fluff with fork, and cool. Meanwhile, make dressing. Combine the remaining ingredients with the dressing; add cooked couscous. Toss gently. Chill before serving.

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