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.

Conversation with Pro Boxer and Caribbean Chef Julius Jackson

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2018

At age of 30, Julius Jackson is a professional boxer, chef, cookbook author, model, and actor. He is a light-heavyweight Olympic qualifier and plays a boxer on the Telemundo series El Cesar based on the life of Julio Cesar Chavez. Born and raised on the beautiful island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jackson maintains a delicate balance between his professional life, his passion, family and serving the community.

I met Jackson at the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience’s “The Giving Table,” a community-centric private gourmet dinner prepared by celebrity chefs to raise funds for the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development and rebuilding St. Croix after the destruction from two hurricanes in 2017. Jackson carefully plated about 40 servings of pumpkin fritter with a salmon croquette and micro-blended creole sauce, topped with a thyme and parsley garnish. It was an instant crowd pleaser.

How did you get involved with St. Croix Food and Wine Experience?

The St. Croix Food and Wine Experience works with a lot of nonprofits in the USVI, one of which I am closely involved with. I am the head chef and manager of the charitable café/ bakery called My Brothers Workshop which focuses on mentoring and job placement for at-risk youth. We help kids get diplomas online, provide job skills, counseling and mentoring and give them hope to overcome their situations and become better citizens of the island. I also spend a lot of time volunteering at schools and summer camps to talk about boxing and cooking.

What’s your history with boxing?

My dad, Julian “the Hawk” Jackson, was a 3-time world champion boxer and Boxing Hall of Fame recipient. Boxing was huge for our family, but I did not care much for it. I saw my dad get injured and go for surgeries towards the end of his career, which turned me away from the sport. I liked baseball better.

My brothers, on the other hand, did box and would come home and teased me for being fat and lazy. So, I decided to just go to the gym with my dad to get in shape, but I didn’t want to punch or fight anyone. When my brothers started competing in tournaments and needed a sparring mate, my dad asked me to do it. They would beat me up but I couldn’t hit them back, so decided to box. Soon enough, I realized that I was a natural at it and started liking it. I began my amateur boxing career at the age of 13, competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China and won the title of WBC (USNBC) Super Middleweight Champion in 2012. I am currently fighting with a professional record of 20-2 with 17 KOs (knockouts).

How did you get into cooking?

When I was a kid, I hated being hungry. I would stay in the kitchen to help my mom cook mostly because I wanted to be the tester and take the first bite. One day, when I was about 10, I was home and hungry, so I decided to cook myself fried chicken. It turned out nice but I remember putting too much Goya adobo! All my brothers wanted some, so I started cooking for everyone. I watched them enjoying what I prepared and it made me feel good. Then on, I would make pancakes, scrambled eggs and Johnny Cakes on the weekends for everyone.

Until high school, I never perceived a career in culinary arts. My counselor advised me to take home economic courses in 8th grade and after graduation, I went to Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. I worked with a catering company, hotel, restaurant and did some pop-up dinners while maintaining my pro boxing career.

What’s your cookbook about?

Whenever I get a chance to talk with the women in my family, I am always learning how they cook certain Caribbean dishes. Keeping true to my roots, I wrote my Caribbean fusion cookbook focusing on traditional Caribbean recipes across the different islands, with classic French and Italian twists I learned through my training. Some of the recipes include Caribbean quesadillas with fresh mangoes and focaccia bread with avocados. I am Caribbean by blood but I love mixing with other people and cultures.

I wrote “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” (releasing July 2018) through the two hurricanes Maria and Irma. It was dark everywhere and I had to look for light and internet. I dedicated the book to the victims, while I was also working through the time feeding people at the bakery.

To learn more about Jackson, visit  http://juliusthechef.com and follow him on Twitter.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine