It’s a cold winter morning in Iowa City, but inside the Burge Market Place, Nathan Cox is hard at work behind a hot stove. He’s dressed in the standard Market Place uniform of a white shirt, black pin-striped pants and duck-billed hat with Burge Market Place printed across the front. On the side of the hat is a pin in the shape of the Minnesota Vikings’ logo, his favorite football team.
On the stove, there are already two omelets cooking. He picks up the remaining empty frying pan, adds some egg mixture and asks the next student in line “What’ll it be?”
“Green peppers, bacon and mushrooms, please,” she says. “Comin’ right up!” he responds, tossing the ingredients into the pan and placing it on the stove. He immediately picks up the farthest frying pan and flicks his wrist, sending the omelet flipping into the air while he striking up a conversation with someone in line. All the students in line glue their eyes to the airborne omelet and watch as it falls neatly back into the pan. Cox puts the omelet on the plate and slides it to its new owner, wishing them a good day with a smile.
It’s this combination of tricks, conversation and cooking that have earned him popularity with students. On this particular day, there were 13 students waiting in line for an omelet, with more coming to replace the ones that left. One student in line, Stan Waisath, said he’s been a fan of Cox’s cooking ever since Cox used to cook stir fry.
“I don’t always want an omelet,” said Waisath, a 20-year-old junior majoring in engineering at the UI. “But when I do, I always try to get one by Joe Tornado.”
His popularity extends beyond the Burge Market Place. On Facebook, he’s been crowned the “Burge MVP Omelet Maker” and has a fan page with over 300 fans, with more joining every day. On the page, students share their appreciation for Cox, or Joe Tornado as he’s known to most students.
When asked how he felt about the page, Cox said he felt it was weird, but funny too.
“It’s kind of weird because of the spotlight, but it’s kind of cool too,” he said. “People come in and say ‘Hey you got a fan page blah blah blah’ and I act like I don’t know about it so I go ‘Oh, do I?’”
As for the origins of his alias Joe Tornado, the name came about when he first started working at the Market Place six years ago. He wanted a way to keep his personal life and professional life separate, so he came up with the name.
“I used to go downtown a lot and I didn’t need people knowing my real name,” he said. “And they make you wear a nametag, and nobody likes to wear a nametag, so I told them to print me up one that said Joe Tornado not thinking they would, and I got one.”
Cox ended up in Iowa City after a childhood spent moving around the country. He lived in Wisconsin, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, and Iowa. He eventually settled in Iowa City at the age of 17 after his mom said she was moving to Oregon and he decided he was done with traveling.
“I went to six grade schools, two high schools and back and forth between Denver, Col. and Iowa City probably half my life,” he said. “When she moved to Oregon, I said ‘Screw that, I’m staying, I’m sick of moving around.’”
Cox never attended college. He said that cooking wasn’t what he had originally wanted to do, but he took the job when it presented itself. He started out as a temp worker cooking, cleaning and doing dishes. He did this for a few years before moving up to the Chef’s Table where he is today. He said he enjoys his job because it’s fast-paced and he gets to interact with students.
“It’s fast-paced, I get in and I get out,” Cox said. “And I like to put a smile on people’s face, so it works for me.”