Written by Grant Tabler, Class of 2016
What does divine providence have to do with cooking? They both involve John Paul’s Chef Courtney. “Chef,” as many people here call him, is the mastermind behind the amazing food at John Paul. With him, we get the best of two worlds: his infectious personality and his culinary expertise. The JP Blog decided to sit down with him and find out where his love for food originated and how he came to work at John Paul.
Chef Courtney was born in Jamaica into a very close-knit family. While his grandmother was babysitting him, she would have him stand on a wooden crate in the kitchen and watch her cook, so she could keep an eye on him. He believes that this is where the seed was planted. Ever since, he has always found comfort in the kitchen.
Upon his parent’s immigration into the United States, he realized that cooking is a universal language. His mom recognized his aptitude and love for food and began to slowly give him more and more cooking responsibility, to the point that he would make his family Sunday meal of brown stewed chicken, rice, and peas every Sunday.
“The love of food is not what makes a great chef – it’s a passion for creating it,” explained Chef Courtney. And living in D.C. has given him many opportunities to do exactly that. Chef has been on a long journey that he believes has led him to his current role at JP.
In DC as a teenager, Courtney worked in the pizza business for a while where he learned many useful skills, until he realized that he needed something more. Soon after quitting his pizza job he enrolled in school to follow the profession of his father, a computer technician. But he realized he wasn’t happy there: he missed the beauty and the sense of creation that he felt while cooking.
His family decided to open up a grocery/ deli in 1985. They ran a very successful business and left 21-year-old Courtney in charge of the deli. To say he was a natural is an understatement: he was able to run the deli all by himself, preparing the food and then serving it to a large clientele base. People from around DC would come to the deli to have their famous, authentic Jamaican Jerk Chicken. He soon realized his aptitude for cooking and began to get really creative. He would take ideas off his favorite TV show, “Great Chefs of the World,” and turn them into his own.
Eventually his parents sold the business in 2001, and Chef felt lost. He knew he loved to cook and run the carryout, but he didn’t know what to do. He eventually found jobs working at a few large hotels, serving banquets and cooking in the kitchen. As his coworkers noticed his passion for the culinary arts, they began training him and help him towards his newly found dream – to be an executive chef.
As Chef put it, “it takes a certain individual to be a chef. You must truly love what you do in order to succeed. You can’t be half-hearted in this industry – it is essential to put everything you have into making food, or else it simply won’t be good.” Chef remarked that “when it comes to cooking, I’m like a kid in a candy shop – [I’m] always happy.”
Many in the food industry saw his potential and encouraged him to go to culinary school, but he believed he didn’t need to go to school – he just wanted to work.
One of the hotels began to leave him on the line by himself where he needed to manage three different stations alone, but it eventually became too much and he resigned. After working a few smaller jobs, he saw an opportunity to work for dining services at a government agency. While there he finally realized that to be truly successful, he had to go to culinary school. He enrolled in a local university’s culinary program. Before he had even finished school, the agency asked him to become the executive chef. His dream was already becoming a reality, and his mom and dad couldn’t have been happier.
Chef accepted and stayed there for a few years, then moved on to work at other kitchens around DC, even getting the chance to cook for the President and cater some major events. After doing this for a while longer, he again realized that he wanted to move on and learn new things. This is when he found his job with Fairfax Food Service, who placed him at JP. Courtney believes that all his previous experiences and jobs have prepared him for this one.
Looking back, he can see that the road was already leading him here: Early on in his career his aunt suggested that he work in the schools because of his love for kids, and for making healthy and delicious food. At the time, he didn’t want to work for a school, but now at JP he says he couldn’t be happier. He believes that God put him here for a reason and that this is where he is meant to be: he works with extremely good people, he loves the variety of the menus he creates, he enjoys interacting with the kids, and he loves his staff – or as he would say, his work family.
Here, as in every place he has worked, Chef has shown his amazing ability – not only by creating the varied menus, but even by problem-solving. When I was interviewing him there was a shortage of burgers. There were not going to be enough burgers for the next lunch, so Chef sprung into action, figuring out what to do next and how to make sure everyone was fed. This is the mark of a truly excellent chef.
It has been said that God reveals his goodness through food, giving us a tiny preview of the happiness of Heaven. Anyone who has ever tasted Chef Courtney’s cooking knows this is true.
Like anyone else, at times Chef doubted his own abilities, but he kept his eye on the light above and is now standing in the light of God with a dream job. He is thrilled for the chance to promote healthy eating at school, and at home with his 2 kids. In fact, his 16 year old daughter wants to be a chef.
Chef believes that food is its own universal language, pointing out that you can reach anyone through it. JP is thankful to have Chef Courtney, someone who loves this job so much that you can see it on his face whenever you walk by the kitchen – the sheer joy he gets out of making food for people.