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Compliments to the Chef

Bernard and Johanna Sbisa on the Texas A&M campus in front of their Mess Hall. The building burned down in 1911 and was replaced by the current Sbisa Dining Hall.

Aggies have been saying Bernard Sbisa’s last name wrong this whole time. It’s not “suh-bee-suh,” but closer to “speez-uh.” Not that anyone can blame them. The man’s legacy on Texas A&M’s campus today mostly consists of his namesake dining hall gracing the north end of Military Walk.

If the thousands of students who shuffle through Sbisa Dining Hall today pay any thought to the building’s name, they likely chalk its origin up to a generous donor or a founding member of the university. Bernard was neither. He was an immigrant chef who gave selflessly to Texas A&M, filled thousands of Aggie stomachs and found a special place in students’ hearts.

Bernard was born in Austria in 1843. He moved to the United States with his uncle at age 7 and spent most of his childhood in New Orleans. As a teenager, he attended a language school, where he fell in love with a Spanish-born girl named Johanna. After operating a series of hotels as a young entrepreneur, Bernard opened the Great Southern Hotel in Galveston, Texas, in 1868. He married Johanna that same year, and the couple prepared to take root in the coastal soil.

But calamity struck the Sbisas for the first time when the Great Southern burned down in June 1877, leaving the couple homeless. To further complicate matters, Johanna was due to deliver the couple’s daughter, Rita, in October. After months of frantic job searching, Bernard found a unique opportunity at the fledgling Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. He became the college’s steward of subsistence, charged with feeding the 400 cadets housed in what were then the only two buildings on campus, Old Main and the mess hall (known as Stewards Hall and later renamed Gathright Hall).

Upon arriving in College Station, Bernard felt cadets weren’t being fed the kind of quality meals their fees warranted. He dedicated himself to “putting the boys’ money on the table” and adjusted the kitchen’s standards accordingly. Before his tenure, the college spent approximately $15 per month to feed its cadets (about $350 adjusted for inflation). Bernard doubled the cost, delivering quality ingredients and diverse meals three times per day.

  • Gathright Hall (1876-1933)

    Originally named Steward's Hall, Gathright Hall was later renamed in honor of Texas A&M's first president, Thomas Gathright. The building was split between a four-story structure that housed the president and a three-story structure that served as a combination dormitory and mess hall.
  • Mess Hall (1898-1911)

    Texas A&M's first dedicated mess hall was built when Gathright Hall became too small to accommodate the influx of cadets that arrived after president Sullivan "Sul" Ross took office. The building was also the chosen venue for many banquets and social events. Sadly, a kitchen fire in 1911 brought down the old Mess Hall just 14 years after it opened.
  • Sbisa Dining Hall (1911 - present)

    Designed by notable campus architect and faculty member Dr. Frederick E. Giesecke and dedicated to Bernard Sbisa upon construction, Sbisa Dining Hall opened as the claimed "largest unobstructed dining hall in the world." Today, 108 years since it first opened, the iconic dining hall maintains a central role on the Texas A&M campus.

With the arrival of Sullivan “Sul” Ross as president, the college evolved past its humble beginnings. As years passed and the institution expanded, including the construction of a new and bigger mess hall in 1898, Bernard and his family became living landmarks—local icons of Old Army life. Cadets came to love his commitment to his craft and Johanna’s warm and consoling disposition. For those students who felt homesick in College Station, the Sbisas embodied the families they left behind.

The couple continued their work with their vetted kitchen staff, diligently producing three meals per day for up to 1,200 students at a time. They took lodgings on the second floor of the mess hall to stay close to the kitchen. Bernard prided himself on punctuality, never delivering a single meal late…until one fateful morning in 1911 when his livelihood went up in flames once again.

Born in Austria, Bernard Sbisa spent most of his childhood in New Orleans. After operating a series of hotels as a young entrepreneur, he became steward of subsistence at Texas A&M. He prepared three meals per day for the entire student body and faculty for more than 50 years.

The fire started sometime before dawn. Bernard woke to the sound of alarms and ran out of the mess hall. While students formed bucket lines to stifle the blaze engulfing his beloved building, he focused on gathering materials and finding a place to cook breakfast. He made no attempt to save any of his belongings.

As the fire neared its end, faculty members conducted an emergency meeting to discuss how the college’s needs would be accommodated. Bernard interrupted to confidently announce that he would serve breakfast before 11 o’clock, stunning the faculty with his declaration. Shortly thereafter, he and his staff dug ditches and procured wood for barbecue fires. They gathered stray wash pots and utensils, borrowed field kitchenware that was intended for military camping exercises and began cooking in the open air. Breakfast was served at 10:30 a.m., picnic style. It was the only meal Bernard served late.

After the last embers of the mess hall fire died out, the college faculty elected to break for winter holiday early while they began planning temporary accommodations and a permanent replacement. Construction on the new dining hall began soon after with the words “Bernard Sbisa Hall” cut into its cornerstone.

Johanna succumbed to a heart attack in 1919. Bernard continued serving the college until he passed away while visiting his daughter in Havana, Cuba, in 1928. He had invested his heart, soul and last 50 years to providing the best meals he could muster for what he once called “the finest set of young men in the world,” the Corps of Cadets.

When workers finished Sbisa Dining Hall in 1913, it was considered the “largest unobstructed dining room in the world.” It may not carry that claim today, but it still bears the recognizable name of a man whose pure, unfettered passion to do his job and do it right earned him the respect of all whom he served.

Contact:

Dunae Reader '15

Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications/Spirit Editor