2017-03-02 / Cuisine

From food service to faculty, his career spans the globe


Who knew Southwest Florida is home to such a varied assortment of working chefs? James Fraser, accomplished culinary artist that he is, does not own a restaurant or a catering company. Instead, he uses his vast talents to teach future hospitality professionals at Florida Gulf Coast University how to keep the rest of us fat and happy once they embark on their own careers.

In addition to working in restaurants around the world, performing agricultural and culinary research and working as a restaurant consultant, Mr. Fraser also runs the nonprofit Institute for Culinary Awareness, Research and Education with his wife, Courtney, to increase community engagement with food. Read on to learn more about Fraser and his work.

Q: What inspired you to become a chef?

A: It was necessity rather than inspiration. Originally, after leaving college I anticipated working with outdoor expedition outfitters for teens. But I was unable to pin down paying opportunity and ended up relying on previous food service experience.

Working food service was always a blast. I never went hungry, always found work in great locations, usually ate well and often was compensated in the most unique ways. While interviewing at a Dallas hot spot, The Greenroom, the executive chef asked me if I was a “freak,” and without hesitation I said, “I suppose it depends on who you ask.” He said, “Food, because we only hire freaks.” He was one of the best I’ve worked for; his creativity affected all around him. I made enough cash working for him that after three months I moved to Paris for three years.

Q: What motivated you to move from the restaurant industry to academia?

A: I was weary of working with others, and I tried for several years to move to academia … From Rhode Island I followed my wife, who was hired as a rock DJ, to Miami and ended up working at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami … Eventually, I followed my wife to another gig at a station in Fort Myers. Shortly after relocating, I was invited to teach as a paraprofessional at FGCU. Three years ago it led to a full-time faculty position. It’s greatly satisfying.

Q: How do your describe your typical classroom and assignments?

A: There is nothing typical about my class or the assignments given to the students. I break each class into groups of five or six students who rotate through six positions in our kitchen lab and executive dining room. There are cooks, servers/ bartenders, dishwashers and three lucky groups that serve as guests. The objective is to prepare, serve and report on a fine dining lab exercise … My students’ skills are recognized by many of our local industry leaders. You’ll find our students in most of the area’s fine clubs, restaurants, resorts and spas.

Q: You worked as a guest lecturer at Southern Royal Hotel in Madras, India, where you also learned how to prepare Indian cuisine. How would you characterize that period on your career?

A: I had already been living outside the U.S. for several years, but nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered while in India. Living in Madras and visiting the surrounding areas, I was profoundly touched by the connection between the people and the food. I formed a deeper appreciation for the energy transferred from the food we eat. I am forever changed and grateful for the revelations I had while immersed in the rich cultural heritage and identity of Southern India.

Q: Are your students particularly interested in any specific topics? What do you think they find challenging that you address in the classroom?

A: Our students are extremely eager to learn about a variety of topics and with limited experience, they are curious about the nature of the hospitality industry. I believe they are most challenged with reporting in an objective nature and engaging during lectures, so we usually prepare a coffee and snack service as a part of the daily lesson plan during lectures. This practice tends to stimulate their attention and creates some comfort in the professional environment of the classroom.

Q: You and your wife, Courtney, run the Institute for Culinary Awareness, Research and Education out of FGCU. What is your organization’s mission and work?

A: We established ICARE to promote civic engagement through community impact initiatives. We have had significant effects in the Pine Manor community (in Fort Myers), where we used grants to develop a commercial kitchen to create scholarship opportunities in food service, training and certification for teens and adults. We also have a community garden that provides fresh vegetables and fruits to a community identified as a food desert. The garden also generates revenue from the sale of surplus vegetables at local farmers markets. Most recently, we are developing a food forest corridor between a recreational park and the community center.

Although ICARE is not a FGCU program, we run a series of professional and personal development classes through the university’s continuing education program. We are developing initiatives within the FGCU School of Resort and Hospitality Management that embrace and share many of its core values to address a critical need for professional food service training in our local area.

Q: Which dishes are you particularly proud of?

A: At our house, menus range from roasted chicken and rice to Vietnamese spring rolls and pho. However, if you were going to pick a night to have dinner with us, you would want to have osso bucco in a red wine demi-glace with lentils and shaved Brussels sprouts. I am also particularly fond of my hollandaise sauce.

Q: What do you find challenging?

A: I just don’t understand why such severe disconnect from food is occurring and why we haven’t revised our approach to food systems, food choices and meal times. I have met several people who have food phobias and limit their food choices to five items or even fewer — usually rice, French fries, chicken nuggets and maybe a fruit or specific vegetable. Also, mealtime in other countries is a cherished ritual to connect with families and friends and celebrate food that is never to be abused, wasted or discarded without purpose.

Q: What has been one of your favorite culinary experiences?

A: Without doubt the four-hour, 12-course meal I ate at Guy Savoy’s restaurant in Paris. At about $800 per person, it’s also the most expensive meal I’ve eaten. As the main course, a double bone-in, center-cut pork chop was cut tableside from the center of an eight-bone roasted rack. I wept with contained jubilee. I often wonder what happened to the other ends of the roast. ¦

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