Breaking Down Baja: Where To Eat, Stay and Play South of the Border

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Jan 2021.

Baja California is a state in Mexico located south of the California border. With the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico on either side, Baja has dramatic landscapes that span across mountains, sandy beaches, deserts and valleys. The Baja peninsula is one of the longest in the world, stretching over 700 miles from north to south.

While the peninsula has much to discover, the two main regions worth traveling to are Baja California (north Baja) and Baja California Sur (south Baja).

Road Trip Through North Baja 

The best way to start your exploration of north Baja is by flying into San Diego International airport. From here, you can either rent a car (less than a 30-minute drive), or take a taxi to San Ysidro to cross the pedestrian bridge. Alternately, you can fly into the large city of Tijuana and start your road trip here. Make sure to check your car rental insurance policy as some companies do not provide coverage in Mexico.

Continue your drive along the Pacific Coast on Highway 1, stopping at the towns of Rosarito Beach and Puerto Nuevo for fresh lobsters, margaritas and tamarind candies.

Beach in Ensenada
Pictured: Beach in Ensenada | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Make your way to Ensenada, a charming port town with expansive beaches, surfing spots, boutique restaurants and shopping.

If you have a car, you can drive further south to see rocky cliffs and one of the world’s largest blowholes, La Bufadora.

Ensenada is also known as the gateway to Mexico’s wine country and hosts a series of concerts, tastings and events during Fiestas de la Vendimia(Wine Harvest Festival).

Mexico’s Wine Valley 

Valle de Guadalupe is often compared to California’s Napa Valley. Here you can find over 120 wineries, trendy Baja Med cuisine, and an assortment of eco-friendly hotels located along Ruta del Vino (wine route). The community was first founded by Dominican missions in 1834, and now over 80% of Mexico’s wine is produced in the valley.

Valle de Guadalupe
Pictured: Valle de Guadalupe | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The region’s Mediterranean-like climate is ideal for growing red grape varieties such as nebbiolo, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, grenache and syrah. Since the winemakers are not regulated, they have room to innovate and create new blends using the season’s fresh harvest, rather than importing grapes.

While most of the vineyards and wine producers in the valley are boutique, there are also a few large commercial brands. Unique designs, open-air tasting rooms and local art displays make a few wineries worth the visit. Check out Vena Cava’s nautical themed wine bar and food truck, olive and lemon groves at Casa Magoni, a cool cave cellar at Encuentro, and nature-themed art installations at Bruma. Wine tasting rooms tend to get crowded on the weekends as visitors from the U.S. and Mexico get away for the weekend.

Encuentro Guadalupe winery
Pictured: Encuentro Guadalupe winery | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

In the valley, stay at Encuentro Guadalupe, a 24-room boutique hotel and winery with individual cabins on a wildlife reserve that appear to blend into the vast dry mountainous landscape. Each of the eco lofts has large windows and private terraces, so you can privately enjoy a sea breeze over neighboring vineyards, scenic sunset and star-studded night skies. Though the food and wine at Encuentro are notable, some of the best restaurants and wineries are located only minutes away.

Wellness in Tecate

On the border of San Diego and Tecate lies Rancho La Puerta, a destination spa resort that has been inspiring wellness for 80 years. Here you can stay in a Spanish-style casita surrounded by 4,000 acres of beautifully manicured gardens and the sacred Kuuchamaa Mountain.

Rancho La Puerta
Pictured: Rancho La Puerta | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

All-inclusive rates give you access to over 50 fitness classes each day, healthy and delicious farm-to-table meals, as well as presentations by wellness coaches. You can also experience some natural spa treatments and holistic therapies unique to The Rancho La Puerta. Plan to stay for at least a week if you want to avail the full experience.

Sun and Beach in South Baja 

Southern Baja is a popular destination known for its year-round warm weather warm, turquoise blue waters and white sand beaches. Los Cabos International Airport is well connected to cities across the U.S. Once you arrive, you can head to either of the two main cities located only a few minutes away—Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo.

Cabo San Lucas

Cabo San Lucas is a haven for those who like to swim, kayak, fish, snorkel, sail or just relax at the beach. Most resorts and timeshares are located in the southern tip of Baja California Sur near Cabo San Lucas.

The Thompson Hotel in Cabo San Lucas
Pictured: The Thompson Hotel in Cabo San Lucas | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The luxurious The Cape – A Thompson Hotel overlooks the Sea of Cortez and granite formations called El Arco. Local architects and artists partnered to design the hotel that blends in with the surroundings and maintains a vibrant 1960s Baja-meets-Southern California vibe. Start your day with a swim in the infinity pool, walk along the secluded beach and dine at Manta, an Asian-Peruvian-Mexican fusion restaurant.

The marina at Cabo San Lucas is dotted with bars, restaurants and shopping. This is also a meeting point for most tours, including snorkel and sightseeing sails. A must is to cruise along Land’s End with a local operator, Pez Gato. They offer smaller group excursions so you can have a safe and leisure experience watching the colorful marine life in the shallow waters at Santa Maria Bay.

San Jose del Cabo

The neighboring city of San Jose del Cabo is more historic. Colorful buildings located along cobblestone streets offer the authenticity of an old Spanish town. Here you are less likely to be bothered by peddlers as local families stroll through the main square across the Parroquia San José (a mission church).

Main square at San Jose Del Cabo
Pictured: Main square at San Jose Del Cabo at night | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

There are lots of art galleries, boutique shops, bars and cafés within walking distance. But the main reason to come to San Jose del Cabo is for the food. Unlike San Lucas, there are more Mexican mom and pop restaurants here specializing in tacos, seafood, margaritas and churros.

To discover some of the best architectural and culinary secrets of the area, take a guided walking food tour with Juan More Taco, a locally-owned and operated tour company.

Baja California is one of the safest places in Mexico. No matter which part you choose to explore first, you will find that the people are friendly and welcoming, taking pride in their land and culture.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Tips on Glamping Around The National Parks in Wyoming

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Dec 2020.

Being in nature can be healing to the mind, body and soul. Whether you need a change of scenery, to disconnect from your laptop, or a little more movement, Wyoming offers expansive landscapes, scenic roads and fresh air.

Surrounded by mountains and parks, there are endless possibilities for outdoor recreation around the state. But these times call for planning ahead and taking caution while traveling. Before you head out, make sure to read these tips for traveling safely to some of the most beautiful national parks in Wyoming.

Base in Jackson Hole 

Fly or drive to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The picturesque small town has the charm of a mountain village while offering a boutique beer and food scene. There are 2500 acres of skiing and snowboarding at the Jackson Hole Mountain, Snow King Mountain Resort and Grand Targhee Resort in the winter. The National Elk Refuge and The National Museum of Wildlife Art are open year-round.

During spring and summer, there’s hiking, biking, horseback riding and whitewater rafting. Two of the most iconic national parks, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, are just north of Jackson Hole.

Fireside Resort
Pictured: Fireside Resort cabins | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

If you are looking for a close to home getaway in the great outdoors, you may be thinking of camping, renting an RV, or staying at a cabin. Fireside Resort in Jackson Hole offers a glamping experience with all the modern-day convenience of a boutique hotel. There are 25 LEED-certified sustainable cabins and an RV campground spaced out along a row of trees.

The outside of the individual cabins looks rustic, but they are artistic and functional on the inside. Hardwood floors, oversized fireplace, craftsman style door knobs, local art and Native American rugs make this simple space cozy and welcoming.

After a long day of hiking and biking, a king-size Tempur-Pedic bed, walk-in rain shower, and a modern kitchenette is a nice treat to look forward to.

Get The U.S. Park Pass

If you plan to spend more than three days at any national park in the country, it is worth investing in the America The Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. For $80, you can enter any of the 2,000 federal recreation sites for up to a year (instead of paying $30 each time). By simply displaying the pass, you can also enjoy a touchless entrance.   

Jenny Lake hiking trail at Grand Tetons
Pictured: Jenny Lake hiking trail at Grand Tetons | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Download The App

Driving through parks allows you to explore at your own pace, stopping to view wildlife and finding secluded picnic spots. Plan your stops at iconic scenic viewpoints, trailheads and restroom breaks by downloading the free National Park Trail Guide app from Adventure Projects Inc. Here you search for hikes by difficultly, distance, ratings, and even see pictures of the landscapes before you get there.

Remember that your phone may have limited or no connectivity inside the parks, so map your route ahead of time.  Also, make sure to carry a physical map as it will have the most up to date information about road and facility closures. Be sure to also pack a charger for your phone.

Make it To Go

Most parks have limited food offerings and usually serve expensive fast food. You may be able to find an occasional general store or café, but it’s best to carry everything you will need to eat or drink throughout the day. This will save time and money and help avoid standing in long lines.

Bison in Grand Tetons
Pictured: Bison in Grand Tetons | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Visit a grocery store the night before and purchase enough bottled water, soft drinks, fruits, pre-packed snacks and PPP items (sanitizer, wipes, masks). It is worth investing in a foldable cooler with ice packs and a picnic blanket so you can enjoy your meal anywhere.

Before heading out to the park, order your breakfast and lunch online to take with you. There are many great coffee shops, bakeries and delis in Jackson Hole town square to choose from. Nora’s Fish Creek Inn was nominated by James Beard as one of five “ America’s Classics” restaurants in 2012. The French bakery —Persephone — has some of the best pastries and coffee in town, while its sister restaurant, Picnic, offers globally-inspired gourmet sandwiches.

Grand Tetons National Park

The Teton Range is a 40-mile mountain range towering over Jackson Hole. There are several flat biking and hiking trails, taking you through valleys, along rivers and to historic sites of Grand Tetons.

Drive through the scenic Moose-Wilson road, making frequent stops to see snow-covered glaciers, deep blue lakes, green grasslands filled with wildflowers, and a few hundred bison. While there is plenty of space to spread out in the Grand Tetons, some more popular trails could get crowded.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the U.S., located only ten miles north of Grand Teton. The 3500-square-mile wilderness area spreads across the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone
Pictured: Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

There are many interesting geysers, canyons, and hot springs in Yellowstone’s volcanic region that draw visitors worldwide. To skip the crowds, visit places like Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic, and Mammoth Hot Spring either early in the morning or later in the day. Because the park is so vast and there are lots of things to do, spread your visit across a few days, focusing on different park regions.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Retired Marine Achilles Murray is Sergeant of Gourmet Sauces

Cuisine Noir. November 2020

For retired marine Achilles Murray, the recent lockdown has been a blessing. “People are cooking more at home. They are tired of ordering takeout. That’s where my reputable and delicious barbecue sauces come handy,” says Murray.

Murray and his wife started J&T’s Gourmet Sauces from their home kitchen while stationed in Japan. Murray, a native of Pasadena, California, joined the United States Marine Corps at the age of 22 and was deployed for about 13 years of his career. His family lived in Japan, Hawaii, South Carolina and California, and traveled all over the world. “We got to see a lot of places, including Hong Kong, Australia and Dubai. My favorite time was when I was stationed in Jordan for eight months. We had a mission there, and we did a good job at it,” Murray recalls.

Missing a Taste of Home

During his six-year-long tenure in Okinawa, Japan, Murray was inspired to make his barbecue sauce. Murray loved Japanese food and culture, but he was homesick for authentic and flavorful barbecue that he grew up with. He was always barbecuing with his fellow Marines and other service members but felt that something was missing. “It was a very beautiful island, and we could find all kinds of cuisines, but no respectful barbecue sauces,” Murray says.  The only sauces he was able to get at the commissaries were very basic. He started experimenting in his home kitchen with no prior professional cooking experience and came up with something more palatable. “When our friends tried it, they said we should start bottling this. People were going crazy over it,” says Murray.

Achilles Murray, founder of J & T's Gourmet Sauces
Pictured: Achilles Murray | Photo credit: Paul Morgan Photography
Do It Yourself

As a Marine, Murray learned to take leadership and an “if you want things done well, do it yourself” attitude. He started bottling and selling his sauces while living in Parris Island, South Carolina, but couldn’t get the operation up and running as he was always moving.

It wasn’t until years later, when he retired in 2014, that Murray was able to fully dedicate himself to commercializing the sauce his family and friends had grown to love. He rented a kitchen and made 40-80 bottles of his “Original” sauce by hand, which would sell out in two weeks. “It was very daunting at first. We got to a point when we couldn’t keep up with the demand. So we got a business license, hired a copacker to make four different sauces under our label.” Murray now sells around 1200 bottles every six weeks.

Getting started was the most challenging part for Murray as he did not have prior business experience or a mentor. “I learned mostly through trial and error until I got it right. Once we got the paperwork together and started producing more quantities, it was like clockwork,” says Murray attributing his success to the dedication and discipline that he acquired while in the Marine Corps.

Flavor in Every Bottle

Murray named his company after his children (Joshua, Elisa, Tempestt and Leigh) and the flavors for his love for California. Back in Japan, he started with only one homemade sauce, which he calls Original. It is sweet and tangy and has more flavor than any other barbecue sauce, he claims.

J & T's Gourmet Sauces
Pictured: J & T’s Gourmet Sauces | Photo credit: Paul Morgan Photography

Two years ago, he also started experimenting with local ingredients he found in the supermarket. Staying true to his hometown, he added crushed pineapple to the base sauce to create California Crush. Peaches, mangoes and jalapenos inspired the Backyard Boogie flavor. “When I tasted it, I start dancing, and Mack 10’s ‘Backyard Boogie’ song kept playing in my head,” says Murray. And his fourth flavor, San Andreas, blends strawberries, oranges and habanero, presenting an “earthquake in your mouth.”

“The sauces go on anything from Bloody Marys to mac and cheese and lasagna. You could even drink it. That’s how good it is.” As expected, Murray won’t reveal his secret ingredient.

Expanding The Brand

Murray and his wife now live in Camp Pendleton, California, and sell J&T’s Gourmet Sauces at Temecula area farmers markets, online through their website and in retail stores around Southern California. Service members and friends of Murray have ordered his sauces from Japan, Australia, Jordan and Netherlands.

Chicken wings with J & T's Gourmet Sauces
Pictured: Chicken wings with J & T’s Gourmet Sauces | Photo credit: Paul Morgan Photography

But his goal is to get on grocery store shelves across the nation. Murray wants people everywhere to have the same “earthquakes and boogies” on their palates as he has while creating his sauces.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.

Hotels in the Time of Covid

Khabar Magazine. Nov 2020.

The hotel industry, like restaurants, has been battered during the pandemic. How are South Asian-owned hotels dealing with the crisis? What changes have they made to reassure guests and employees? As travel slowly picks up, what’s the new normal going to be like at your next stay in a hotel?

Like most people, I started this new year with a list of resolutions and aspirations. One of them was to visit my hundredth country and all seven continents. For the past several years, I have been traveling internationally at least once or twice a month, crisscrossing the globe, and was scheduled to enter the travel centurion club by mid-2020. I traveled to Antarctica and Europe in the first couple of months of the year, but by mid-March, the future of travel started to look uncertain. Countries were closing borders, visas were getting suspended, and conferences and festivals started cancelling.

As with everyone in the travel industry, my life too has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. The stay-at-home order left me grounded for over two months, and virtual travel was just not satisfying, personally and professionally.

As soon as Georgia reopened businesses, I took my first overnight trip to Lookout Mountain, a small hilltop destination located at the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Staying at a hotel, with a looming infectious virus, was daunting at first. I debated whether it was safer to continue to stay at home or to go out and support the economy. Cabin fever had left me restless and after considerable research, I decided to venture out. What I learned was that the hospitality industry had quickly set new standards in cleanliness after consulting with CDC and other organizations.

Hospitalioty_2_Nov2020.jpg

At the River View Inn in Chattanooga, I had to wear a mask when entering the reception area, where  a plexiglass divider separated me from the attendant. There were arrows on the sidewalks, and signage throughout the property, reminding guests to keep six feet distance from each other and to wear masks in public areas. The rooms had been sanitized and inn capacity was capped to about 60 percent. Sit-down breakfast service was suspended and replaced with fruit and granola bars to take away in the morning. The new experience was a bit strange, but it felt good to get away from the usual routine of cooking meals every day and attending back-to-back Zoom calls.

Since May, I have stayed at a number of bed-and-breakfasts inns, boutique hotels, and resorts around the U.S. All of them seem to be cleaner than ever, holding heightened standards to ensure safety of guests and employees. In Duck, a beach town on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Sanderling Resort enforced touchless check-in and check-out with online forms and keys handed out in parking lots. A reassuring note hung on the door knob stating that no one had entered my room since it was sanitized. Remote controls and door knobs had been wiped down. Enough towels and toiletries were left in the room for the duration of my stay to avoid interaction with housekeepers. Other places, like the Marble Distillery Hotel in Colorado, did not utilize keys at all. They simply emailed me a door code to enter my room. I never had to speak to a staff member during my two-night stay. And at Home in The Tropics B&B in St. Thomas, a QR code guided me to neighborhood attractions and restaurants, instead of maps and brochures.

The impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry has been surmountable, despite the heavy blow. Hotels in particular have had to adjust their businesses overnight. Approximately 40-50 percent of the hotels in the United States are owned by South Asians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), a trade association that represents hotel owners. Hotels are categorized by ownership (chain, single owner), target markets (airport, extended stay, resorts), and by level of service and number of rooms.

Hospitalioty_3_Nov2020.jpg

Budget and value or economy hotels such as Motel 6, Comfort Inn, and Americas Best have the lowest room rates and offer good value for money. Mid-range and business hotels such as Marriott and Holiday Inns cater to families, business travelers, and affluent travelers. Brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Langham, and Ritz-Carlton fall into the category of Luxury Hotels. Generally, Asian Americans dominate the motel ownership in small towns.

 Adapting to new standards

Because hotels are termed as an essential business, they did not close during the lockdown, yet maintained operations even without any guests.

Navid Kapadi, a partner at Atlanta-based Peach State Hospitality, owns three Choice Hotels franchises located near Atlanta airport. The mid-grade hotel brand caters to leisure travelers who are on road trips through the Southeast and are looking for a night to break their journey. When the shutdown was announced, he panicked. “It was very concerning as we didn’t know what to expect. We had never expected anything like this and didn’t have any guidance on how to deal with it. All of a sudden, cancellations started pouring in.

The first week was extremely tough!” says Kapadi who has been in the hotel business for about five years. His staff immediately sprang into action, partnering with Eco Lab to make sure all their cleaning products were up to date, deeply sanitizing every room, and cleaning the facilities more often. They rearranged the lobby to allow for social distancing, spaced breakfast tables six feet apart, installed plexiglass barriers and sanitizing stations, and put up signs stating only two people could enter the elevator at a time. Further, they implemented daily temperature checks and retrained all their employees.

Not all hotel segments experienced the same level of concern. “Our properties play in the monthly and weekly, long-term, affordable housing segment. Our occupancy has actually gone up during this time. During recession, people are looking for housing where rents are lower and utilities are included,” says Ali Jamal, author of the upcoming book Can-Do Real Estate and CEO of Stablegold Hospitality, which owns and operates seven locations in the Atlanta metro area and two in North Dakota. Jamal claims his top-line revenues during the crisis have been better than he had expected.

Like everyone else in the industry, Jamal did not know how much of an impact Covid-19 would have on the economy and the hotel business. But there’s always a segment of the population that depends on affordable housing, in a flexible format that hotels offer. This has led to a steady and consistent business for him, as well as for other hoteliers in this space. Still, Jamal felt the economic challenge of his customer base and worked with each one of them to offer discounted rates up to 50 percent and flexible payment options to ensure they had a roof over their heads.

Managing financial crisis

New safety measures are now required to reinforce confidence, but put a strain on the hotel’s resources even as revenues dwindle. “We have had to cut back expenses on planned upgrades and other investments, and redo our budgets for the next year,” says Kapadi. Not serving breakfast has reduced costs but hardly enough to offset the added expenses, while occupancy still remains low.

Sam Patel, who owns a Travelodge in Forsyth County, Georgia, and a Red Roof Inn in Richmond Hill, Georgia, also saw considerable impact on his business, but decided to take advantage of the Small Business Administration Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “It allowed us to retain our staff, pay our mortgage, and keep operations going,” he says. Being a smaller hotel, Patel was able to reduce operation costs in the interim. He shrank employee hours, scaled back on ground maintenance, and turned off the lights and refrigerators in unused rooms to save on utilities. Patel also consulted with other hoteliers in the area and concluded, “We are sustaining with the help of government loans but are uncertain about the future. Perhaps we would need another stimulus package, or many of us will need to shut down permanently.”

Prioritizing people

Another major issue that hoteliers are facing during the pandemic is having enough staff return to work. Employees face the same health risks as the customers do, if not more. Being on the frontline of cleaning rooms after each customer, they have more chances of being exposed to the virus. Kapadi adds, “We still have a lot of work, but it’s been challenging, getting staff to return to work. Many of them prefer to receive unemployment, and are afraid for their health.”

Meanwhile, Jamal has not only been able to avoid furloughs, but has hired additional staff to meet demand at his extended stay properties. He also gave out full bonuses to all his managers regardless of their hitting targets.

The new normal

Travel has slowly resumed and many people are resorting to road trips and choosing destinations close to home. “This time of the year, we are typically at 80-100 percent capacity, but now we are at 40-45 percent,” says Kapadi, who has seen increased traffic on the highways in the past few weeks. He can’t predict when his business will return to normal, but is hoping to see more guidelines for the hotel industry.
Patel feels more skeptical. “Though road traffic has increased, people are choosing to skip staying overnight in Georgia, due to our recent spike in cases.” He believes that the state has earned a bad reputation for the way it is handling the virus, which is resulting in guests driving further to stay in neighboring Tennessee and South Carolina.

Across the nation, as vacationers book accommodations, they are not just price sensitive anymore. They are asking questions about what the hotels are doing to ensure health and safety. Hotels need to assure clients that their room is perfect. Each one is expected to observe the new norms that may include touchless check-ins, temperature checks of guests and employees, health screening, reduced room capacities, and extended cleaning procedures. Staff and guests are required to wear masks and limit interactions. Housekeeping, happy hours, and buffet breakfast have also been put on hold.

An uncertain future

There is much uncertainty in the travel space right now, and usual business travel is not likely to return for many months. Lack of a vaccine, increasing unemployment, and fluctuating virus cases are not good news for hoteliers. They believe that big chains that have larger operating costs are more exposed and are going to continue to face challenges, while smaller economy hotels may be able to sustain themselves longer. Major hotel operators Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corp., and Marriott International Inc. have already laid off thousands of employees and have not seen a major uptick in bookings.

Dos and don’ts for your next hotel stay

If you decide to stay at a hotel during these times, make sure to check the city/state travel website to get latest updates on travel restrictions and safety measures. Call the hotel or check their website to see what procedures they have in place and how prepared their staff is. Ask basic questions about cleaning, social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

If you see something that you are not comfortable with, make sure to point it out to the manager so they can rectify it. Also, carry your own PPE (personal protection equipment) such as masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfecting wipes with you when you travel. It is a good idea to wipe down high-touch surfaces such as remote controls, air-conditioning switches, and door handles yourself. Lastly, don’t expect the same level of services and amenities as before. Many hotels have closed access to pools, spas and gyms, and are limiting room service, turndown service, late checkouts, or sit-down breakfasts. They too are anxious and worried while trying to survive, not knowing how bad it can get.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved. Pick up a copy of the November 2020 issue to read more.

7 Doughnuts from Around the World That’ll Make You Want to Put a Ring on It

Chowhound. Oct 2020.

Doughnuts (or donuts) are one of the most popular fried snacks that unites cultures around the world. Doughnuts come in all sizes and shapes: rings, holes, spheres, twists, and balls. It’s hard to argue that everyone enjoys fried dough no matter what shape or form it is served in. As long as it’s hot, fresh, and fried crisp!

Most doughnut recipes include flour, water, sugar, oil, eggs, milk, and shortening. Jellies, chocolate, cream, powdered sugar, and many other flavorings are used as toppings and fillings. To make doughnuts at home you only need some basic equipment: a large saucepan or Dutch oven for frying, a wooden spoon or spider, a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and perhaps a piping bag. Continue reading on Chowhound….

The Ultimate Guide to Pomegranate, ‘The Jewel of Winter’

Chowhound. Oct 2020.

Mystic, beautiful, decorative, lucky, nutritious, superfood—these are some of the words used to describe a pomegranate fruit. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing and using pomegranate.

The brilliant ruby red ball has a thick rind on the outside, and spongy white tissue and edible sweet yet tart arils inside. Whole pomegranates are often used as holiday centerpieces, while the citrusy seeds are useful for juicing, cooking, and garnishing. Continue reading on Chowhound

10 Ways to Work Pimento Cheese into Your Game Day Menu

Chowhound. October 2020.

Often referred to as “Carolina Caviar” or “Southern pâté” in the southern United States, pimento cheese is a classic at tailgates, parties, and in lunchboxes around the country—and these are some of the best pimento cheese recipe ideas around.

This unique cheese mixture is traditionally made with shredded cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and sweet cherry peppers called pimentos. You can add hot sauce, horseradish, jalapenos, garlic, pickles, or any condiment to season the spread. Blend it smooth or leave it chunky. Serve it as a dip with veggies and crackers, spread it on sandwiches, add it to collard greens, or top it over a pizza. The possibilities to personalize pimento cheese are endless. Continue reading on Chowhound

Julius Jackson on Resiliency and Answering the Call for Community in USVI

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

Professional chef, author of the cookbook “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” and a 2008 Olympian boxer representing the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Julius Jackson, knows a little about resiliency. Growing up on the islands, Jackson has witnessed several devastations caused by extreme weather, economic downturn and now a pandemic. However, he has always stayed close to the community and found innovative ways to help those around him.

Alongside his catering, speaking and celebrity guest appearances, Jackson works as head chef and manager at My Brother’s Workshop Café and Bakery in downtown St. Thomas. My Brother’s Workshop (MBW) is a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, counseling, paid job training, education and job placement to at-risk and high-risk young men and women between the ages of 18-24. His job involves teaching students how to work in the food industry, serve customers and manage front and back sections of the bakery as well as attain diplomas online.

Student worker at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student worker at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

On a typical day, Jackson works with his students to create delectable pastries, sandwiches, coffee and breakfast bites that locals grab on their way to work in downtown Charlotte Amelie. The rum cake, seafood kallaloo and dumb bread are known to be some of the best on the island. “We had regular customers who got to know our youth and we had a good business going,” says Jackson. But for the past few months, the bakery kitchen transformed into a feeding center, cooking and delivering free meals to those in need in partnership with World Central Kitchen.

Stepping up in a Time of Need

Back in March, Jackson did not know what the effects of COVID-19 would be on the community. “Once COVID came to the island, the governor ordered a shutdown and we had to close our doors for a few weeks. It put a lot of economic strain on the people who were already living under the poverty level,” Jackson shares. He already knew of families who didn’t have enough food or money, and many elderly individuals who didn’t feel safe going into grocery stores. His team came up with a plan to discontinue normal bakery operations and instead cook and deliver free meals in partnership with sponsors and existing organizations. The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services also got involved and asked for MBW’s assistance in feeding people around the islands. “We reached a point where we were doing 700 meals a day,” Jackson says.

Employee prepping food at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student workers prepping food at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

Though the transition for students cooking at a small bakery to now making high-volume banquet meals was tough, they were able to learn new skills under the guidance of good trainers. Also, it took several weeks for some of them to feel safe to come down to work. The families were scared to send their kids, and some take public transportation to get to downtown. Jackson’s team arranged pick-ups and limited capacity in the kitchen to make them feel safe so they could come in and help with the grassroots efforts.

With the help of 78 community partners, board and committee members, staff, trainees and over 115 volunteers, MBW was able to serve 37,923 meals to the vulnerable population on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix over a period of three and a half months.

Once the program ended and it was safe to reopen, the bakery returned to regular service with a new plan. They switched the menu to offer plates of food and specials that people could grab-and-go from a take-out window without having to come inside.

Answering the Call

The pandemic is not the first time that Jackson took a leadership role on the island. Similar to the COVID response, the leadership of MBW came up with a plan before hurricane Irma devastated USVI in 2017. Jackson recalls securing the bakery against flooding, getting curfew passes from FEMA and immediately springing into action cooking and delivering meals. Then a second hurricane, Maria, came and they had to close again. Jackson sent his wife and young son on a rescue cruise ship from St. Thomas to be with relatives in Canada while he stayed behind. “It was tough but necessary. There was no power, no flights, and lots of homes were destroyed. I couldn’t even say goodbye to them as I was standing in long lines to get gasoline so I could cook our next meal. I don’t think anyone saw me, but that moment was hard and I cried,” Jackson recalls emotionally. He and his team fed about 37,000 people during the four to five months after the hurricanes.

Julius Jackson and team in USVI
Pictured: Julius Jackson and team | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

Jackson says that knowing like-minded people who have faith in doing great things together is what makes him resilient during difficult times. “If I was by myself, I wouldn’t have been as resilient. But there was a team of us that were confident that we could help serve others. We are passionate about the community and good at execution. We have kind of become the emergency response team here. That’s why I’m here,” he adds.

While there is a second lockdown ordered in USVI, his goal is to keep the youth active and their minds engaged and perhaps restart the free meals program.

For daily menus and hours, visit https://mybrothersworkshop.org/ and Facebook.  Follow Jackson for current happenings on the islands and off on Instagram and Twitter.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Blending Caribbean and Italian Flavors with Chef, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Nik Fields

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

Chef Nik, better known as “Nik the Chic Chef “or “Foodie with a Cause,” has merged her passion for food and life.  Over the years, she has gained national recognition for her amazing culinary art skills having prepared cuisine for celebrities such as Jess Hilarious, Supa Cent, Angie Stone, Vivica Fox, Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold and Snoop Dogg. Fields is possibly the only Black chef with her own olive farm and a collection of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars. In the past few months, she introduced a new line of syrups and is planning to open a retail store and café.

Fields grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with her Caribbean-American parents who instilled a love for food in her since she was a little girl. She earned a culinary arts degree and traveled to Italy in search of culture and good food. However, her parents discouraged her from working in the culinary field as they did not consider it to be a glamorous career. Fields earned a master’s degree in finance instead, worked at a bank and excelled in her field. She had a family and continued to show her love for food by throwing parties and family dinners.

Create Your Own Path

At age 43, once her daughter graduated from college, Fields decided to pursue her life’s dream in the culinary arts. “I already had the skills and just needed to brush them[up]. I needed confidence to face the competitive environment,” she says.

Chef Nik Fields
Pictured/Photo credit: Nik Fields

Fields also wanted to use her business skills and create her own path in the culinary world. Instead of working from the ground up, she co-created Chic Chef Co. in 2016. She purchased olive groves in Italy, produced olive oil and introduced 15 organic, salt-free and hand-mixed seasonings. “Think of it as a healthier version of Goya. It’s easy, delicious and doesn’t require any cooking,” adds Fields. She recently introduced a line of honey-based organic simple syrups under Chic Chef Co. that come in flavors such as mango lime, jalapeno and lavender vanilla. The products are available online and in select retail stores. Next, Fields is working on a line of sorbets.

When asked what does it takes to create one’s own product line, Fields says, “It takes a lot of testing, trials and errors. You want to pick a product you can stand behind. I have an appreciation for Italian culture and add my spin on it with my Caribbean background. That’s new and unique.”

Fields plans to open a flagship store in January of 2021 in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The location will also feature a community garden, a restaurant called Chic Chef Co. Marketplace and Café and a private tasting room called Culinary Vibe where Fields will host cooking classes, private dinners and events.

Dish by Chef Nik Fields
Pictured: Rice dish by Chef Nik Fields | Photo credit: Nik Fields

Through her books, this culinary trailblazer also wants to teach others about reducing food waste, the importance of food sustainability and how food stimulates mood and sexual drive. Her third book, “The Chic Chef Approach Volume III: Waste Not Want Not,” releases in October 2020.

Returning to One’s Roots

Fields continues to give back to her cultural background in the Caribbean. Every year, she travels with her team to the island of Hispaniola (an island divided into the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where they fund clean water programs and help villages build private wells. Her nonprofit organization, Waste Not Want Not (WNWN, Inc.), encourages households and restaurants in the U.S. to limit food waste. They hold seminars for kids and adults in Arizona to teach them about food waste and how to grow their own gardens. “My culture teaches me to help as many people as possible and not to discriminate among the community.” Fields says she plans to mitigate hunger by offering free meals to the homeless populations in Phoenix.

The pandemic has not slowed down Fields and her efforts to help everyone eat better, save money and drink clean water. She adds, “The downtime allowed me to have more focus than before. I learned more aspects about my business and [will] be ready for when the world opens up again.”

Learn more as well as shop with Fields at https://www.chicchefco.com  and follow her Instagram and Facebook for updates on new products and the opening of her flagship store.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

The Best Wraps Around the World and How to Make Them All at Home

Chowhound. August 2020.

Wraps are a much healthier alternative to fast food and one of the easiest things to make at home. Versatile for picnics, road trips, and office lunches, wraps are portable, quick, and hearty. They are also packed with nutrition and can be adapted to your taste. If you’re tired of lockdown cooking and bored of plain old sandwiches, here’s some inspiration for your next wrapped meal.

Continue reading on Chowhound.