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.

St. Croix Is the Caribbean Island Where Celebrities Go…and You Can Too!

CheapOAir Miles Away. July 2019.

The island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a quick escape for those looking for beach, sun, and anonymity. At first glance, the former volcanic island may look like a quiet town with neglected neighborhoods and abandoned buildings (mainly due to frequent hurricanes and closing of the Hovensa oil refinery). But as you drive past the flatlands into the two main cities of Christiansted and Frederiksted, the scenery changes to colorful Danish-style buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, art galleries, and fine boutiques selling handmade jewelry and duty-free products.

Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away.

How To Eat Like a King at Thirty Thousand Feet

For The Huffington Post. February 2016.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Gotham Bar and Grill is bustling with executives, vacationers and retired folks. There is a wait to get a table for lunch at this 30-year old legendary Greenwich Village restaurant. I savor every bite as I dig into my rainbow beet salad with toasted hazelnuts and creamy goat cheese, a towering yellowfin tuna tartare, and a decadent Gotham chocolate cake. Everything on the menu is fresh, artful and delicious! With Chef, Alfred Portale steering the kitchen, the restaurant has gone on to win prestigious New York Times 5-star reviews, Michelin ratings, and James Beard Awards.

Now picture yourself eating the same way 30,000 feet in air.

Yes, it is possible! Singapore Airlines has created an International Culinary Panel to create globally inspired menus that are served on international flights. Panelists include a collection of the world’s top chefs and culinary experts, including Alfred Portale from New York (chef at Gotham Bar and Grill), Carlo Cracco from Milan (judge on MasterChef Italia), Georges Blanc from Vonna, France (recipient of Gault and Millau’s highest rating to date – Chef of the Year), Sanjeev Kapoor from Mumbai (host of the longest running cooking show in Asia), Yoshihiro Murata from Kyoto (owner of restaurants with 7 Michelin star), among others.

Now, you can eat some of the same dishes celebrity chefs offer at their restaurants at your seat. The food is cooked using the same ingredients and in the same way that the chefs prepare in their home countries. Portion sizes are small and presentation is spectacular. The dishes are also tested in simulated pressurized cabins to check how the flavors and aromas hold up at high altitudes.

Just the way you select your seats when booking your flights, you can select and pre-order meals created by the chefs of your choice through the airline’s Book the Cook program. In the mood for Kapoor’s Shahi Thali – a platter of Indian basmati rice, roti, chutneys and entrée of the day, or Murata’s Kyo-Kaiseki, a journey through a Japanese imperial court banquet of Heian, temple meals during Kamakura, the feasts of samurais during Muromachi, and the tea ceremonies of Higashiyama? All paired with fine sake, wines and champagnes served by trained air sommeliers. Who says airline food is boring?

Dietary restrictions are not a problem. You can pre-order Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Only Seafood or Kosher meal 24 hours before departure as well.

PHOTO FROM SINGAPORE AIRLINES

Such princely pleasures must come with a First-Class price tag, you would think. The new Premium Economy cabin is a hybrid between business and coach, offering affordable fares in lieu of wider seats, larger entertainment screens, noise-cancellation headphones, personal care kits, a free flow of Champagne and the ability to pre-order meals up to 24 hours before flight departure.

If you feel like splurging, book yourself a private Suite – an individual cabin with sliding door, window blinds, a real bed, chaise lounge, and finer dining options. Caviar, lobster thermidor and fresh tiramisu served on Wedgwood bone china brought to you in your own personal cabin – now that’s a traveling gourmand!

Check out pictures of airline food taken by everyday passengers and eat well on your next flight.