I dial Executive Chef Raul Salinas Wabash ’98… waiting, wondering with every toll of the ringer if he’ll be a hot-headed kitchen prince like culinarians of old.
Would I confess I’m a culinary school dropout! like some “Chopped” pretender or “Hell’s Kitchen” fanboy? If Gordon Ramsay teaches you anything, it’s that chef is king. Do everything the chef commands to the tune of Yes chef, sorry chef, and you won’t get burned.
My phone still sings the dial tone. When, to the surprise of one (me), the rolling brrrring is interrupted by a disarming and endearing, “Hey, man.”
“Just because you’re in charge doesn’t mean you have to be mean,” Eric Mueller Oregon ’92, says when I ask him about Chef Salinas. Mueller sits in a room lined with racks of inky wine bottles covering every wall. He is bright and bespectacled, his Zoom frame lit by Pacific skies outside his window.
Mueller says he worked as a dishwasher at fourteen, spraying schmear and crumb from dinner plates and ramekins. He matured over his career like any good bottle, rising from dish tank to top-shelf director of wine. Then, a leap of faith landed him in the tasting room of Domaine Serene.
“Ten years and six promotions, and now [I’m] one of the vice presidents.”
Any vintner will tell you that the environment around a bottle facilitates its graceful maturation. Mueller’s story reminds me of this through our conversation about his 1992 initiation as a Phi Psi, which seemed to change his atmosphere forever.
“I’m always in awe of other brothers, how they are men of consequence. People who have a meaningful impact on their community and families. When you’re around people like that, it helps set your compass.”
He’s always been close with his brothers, though he admits he wasn’t as involved in the Fraternity in college. When I ask about his chapter, Oregon Alpha, he informs me they lost their charter.
“If you want to create the young leaders of the future, you have to deal with what is current and what you’re expecting (down the road), not what was.”
With an unknown future ahead, and Phi Psi friends at his side, Mueller began work on rechartering Oregon Alpha. He created an advisory board and promoted the ideals of the Fraternity through philanthropy and a new mentoring program.
“The more you put in, the more you get out.” Mueller smiles at me through the gray Oregon haze. He says the most enjoyable aspect of fraternity is the pure laughter from being around those you know so well.
But my thoughts return to the upcoming votes he’d need to reform his chapter.
What did the wine-o think of the executive chef when they first met? I have the gumption to ask. “Bright and hard-working, [who] cares very much for his daughter,” Mueller says.
Salinas’ daughter’s name is a recipe like any chef’s creation. A dash of Helen, with a tablespoon of Eleanor, to make Eleanora. Salinas tells me so after the cool rasp of “Hey man” echoes from my phone speaker. He continues to explain that Eleanora means’ sunshine,’ and his words make clear that her happiness is a beacon for Raul. But, before her guiding light came to his life, Salinas studied at Wabash College, where he became a Phi Psi at Indiana Gamma.
“Our fight song,” he says when I ask him about fond memories of the chapter. “I still have some really great friends from those experiences… They’re that solid moral baseline.”
Salinas graduated from CIA after attending Wabash and a stint in law school. CIA stands for Culinary Institute of America, by the way. It’s as prestigious in the American culinary sphere as what you first thought that acronym stood for. Domaine Serene Winery hired Salinas as executive chef in 2022, rising far from his sushi house beginnings. In the verdant Willamette Valley, where Domaine Serene raises grapes of pinot and chardonnay, Salinas met Mueller for the first time. They were entirely unaware of their Phi Psi connection.
When I ask Salinas about his impression of Mueller at that time, he describes him as a ‘straight shooter.’ “He just had that way about him, you know?”
I ask Mueller how he feels about working with a chef, and he says, “He gets the job done and does it in an efficient way. But yet does it in a caring way.”
Salinas worked with this compassion and professionalism for months when he realized Domaine Serene would host a Phi Psi event. The familiarity of both catering and Fraternity appearing in the strangest of places — his work calendar.
Chef marched to Mueller’s office. Striding through the door, Salinas said, “You’re a Phi Psi!”
Mueller stoically rose from his chair and closed the distance between him and Salinas.
And threw the handshake.
You know the one.
Salinas felt caught off guard by a gesture he’d not seen in over a decade. But his fingers knew the pattern, and Mueller’s comforting ‘way about him’ then made perfect sense.
The Oregon Alpha Chapter won back its charter on its 100th year anniversary, August 19, 2023! Eric Mueller’s goal is fulfilled and the maxim satisfied by undeniably serving others. Brothers of today and tomorrow will benefit from Mueller’s work.
Raul Salinas says he’s elated to reconnect with Phi Psi after years away from Fraternal family and continues excelling in ‘dad mode’ for Eleanora. His delectable career with Domaine Serene has only just begun.
These brothers arrived in Willamette Valley as men of consequence on different roads. It’s an honor to further connect them through Phi Kappa Psi.