Why building a diverse team in your kitchen is important

One might expect the food on a college campus to be mostly quick-service chains and dreary dining halls. But on the campus of the University at Albany in Albany, New York, one will find homemade pastries and authentic Latin, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines.

 

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hen Sodexo Executive Chef Jude Jerome, who oversees the University’s kitchens, was tasked with developing a new restaurant concept on campus, he knew exactly what to do. “It was requested by popular demand from the students they wanted authentic Caribbean cuisine,” says Jerome, who is originally from Haiti. “So off I went with my expertise to build a team on campus with various backgrounds and come up with a concept that would touch several different islands from Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba.”

The team Jerome assembled created a pan-Caribbean restaurant called Calypso. But the harder part was next: The students arrived. “After a full academic year, Calypso became one of the most popular concepts on campus and was the most authentic. It goes to show anything is possible with good culinary foundation,” he says. “The flavors of Calypso are part of me. They are my heritage and my first memories. It is what I first learned and loved.”

Sizzle spoke with Jerome about the challenges of creating Calypso and why it’s important to have a diverse team when creating authentic experiences.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born in Haiti, and was raised in a small community during a time of national reform. I grew up with a strong sense of public service and appreciation of hard work. My mother was a prominent chef in the community and she was my strongest influence as I grew up. She taught me passion, skill, and how food and service can put a smile on a face.

I immigrated to Miami in 1984 to follow my dream. My professional culinary career started by working as an apprentice for great chefs such as Chef Walter Kopp, Chef Ramesh Pillai and most notably Chef Alain Dumas. In 1994, after honing my skills in the kitchens and restaurants in Miami, I Moved to Albany, NY for my first Sous Chef position at The Desmond Hotel with highly acclaimed Chef Mike St. John. I stayed on at the Desmond Hotel for 21 years.

In 2014, I became the Executive Chef at the University of Albany. In this position, I was able to use my skills to influence the catering, retail and dining operations at one of the largest Universities in New York.

What’s your job like?

I currently oversee 21 different food service concepts including our high end catering and concessions business. I manage staff, train cooks and write recipes and menus for our operations on campus. We provide meals for over 12,000 per day in a multi-unit, 94,000-square-foot campus center. I enjoy working with staff, especially when I can influence them to work hard and teach them authentic recipes. But perhaps my favorite part of my job is when I can interact with students, and influence the lives of those passionate like me.

What experience creating restaurant concepts did you have before creating Calypso?

My hotel and restaurant experience in Miami taught me the service skills and planning skills to organize my thoughts. In 2001 I went back to Haiti to help establish and manage one of the country’s largest catering companies. Working alongside friends, family and industry co-workers, I was able to perfect authentic recipes, and learn more about how to keep food authentic and true while providing for large quantities of people. I took classic recipes and was able to apply them to large scale equipment at the university to provide for the large number of patrons.

My love of my homeland kept me focused on authenticity. I still travel back a few times a year to visit family, help the community and local businesses. My visits always give me an inspiration and sense of gratitude.

What did the university give you to start with? Was the space already outfitted with the kitchen you needed to make Caribbean-style food?

The space was already there so as far as the physical location is concerned, all I had to do was map out what equipment we needed to fit our menu. The biggest challenge was sourcing the proper ingredients.

There was a design director who had mapped out the space and worked with architects to give the service space a genuine look and feel. This was a new space and completely designed with Calypso in mind, so we were able to mold it to fit. The budget was tight, and we spend most of it on serviceware and a few pieces of equipment. I knew if the flavors were right, then everything else would be secondary.

I focused on mapping and zoning the space, writing the prep lists and designing the menu boards. I also helped design the logo and uniforms which is bright orange and soothing ocean blue.

Why was it important to you to have people with various backgrounds on this project?

When cooking ethnic food it is very important to find the origin of food, to understand why we want to provide this food and to see if there will need to be any substitutions. And if so, what can be substituted? We recruited cooks with different Latin and Caribbean backgrounds. We had cooks from Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Cuba helping brainstorm ideas. Many of the techniques are similar, but there is a nice mix of regional flavors and specialties. That is why every item is so popular. We really nailed the flavors and ingredients. Everyone bring something to the table. It is my job to convert it into foodservice standard, by keeping the flavor authentic and the food safe.

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How long did it take you to develop? What was the most challenging part?

It took about nine months to a year. The most challenging part was to get the right ingredients and to convince the school that this will work, and to help the administration understand exactly what Calypso is and should be. These are authentic flavors on which many of our students are raised.

On a college campus, we always try to make it so the students who are away from home can feel like they are at home. Food is that connection for me and at Calypso. There was a certain perception of what Caribbean food was until we were able to show the students authenticity and what the real Island flavors are. Then we took the time to explain to them the different layers of flavors and the complexity of the different techniques used to prepare each dish. So many little details are the markers of success.

What is your favorite thing on the menu at Calypso? Why?

It’s a close race between our oxtails and our Escovitch fish. Our oxtail recipes are a combination of different regional favorites. We offer a traditional Jamaican style and a Dominican version. We exploit the versatility of the oxtail, combine flavors and ingredients and serve two different dishes with different flavor profiles that are equally as good. We have found that with oxtail, the delicate flavors, the buttery softness and the rich broths are equally enjoyed no matter where you are from!

For the Escovitch fish, we decided to take this traditional dish, add some modern flavors and offer the patrons a familiar style fried white fish. It transformed this classic Island meal into something appetizing, friendly and un-intimidating that everyone could try and enjoy. The presentation is recognizable and the flavors are true to their roots.

Why do you think it’s important to have authentic and varied cuisine available to students on campuses?

With the popularization of the Food Network and other television programs, the students are more willing to try different cuisine, and many times, almost demanding more options of food to create memories.

We recognize that young adults are moving into a new phase when arriving at a university. Here at the University at Albany, they enter during a time of exploration and learning. This time in their life is a perfect time for them to try diverse foods and have new experiences.

We also know that this is a time when they are making new friends and acquaintances. We also recognize that there is a sense of pride and enthusiasm with where they came from and their cultures. It differentiates them from their friends. Not only do students want to learn, but they want to teach as well. Teaching their friends about their culture is a natural bond for friendships. We see this as an opportunity to bridge these crossroads with food. It allows the experience to be one of learning, teaching — all with a sense of comfort.

Anything else our readers should know about what you do?

Cooking is never complete. Recipes are never complete. What is great about authentic cuisine is that is can continue to reinvent itself. It allows the generations to come together but also to show growth as new generations come along. Much like music and arts, food is a common bond for all cultures. We love providing what we know to the young scholars and inspiration to our future generations.

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