Chef Jilleba holds an honorary Doctorate of Culinary Arts from Johnson and Wales University, earned his Master Chef certification, awarded by the American Culinary Federation in 1997, becoming only the 57th chef in the U.S. to earn the distinction, and the ACF's Presidents Award, its highest honor
We caught up with him during a press event at the elegant RIA restaurant in Chicago's Elysian Hotel, recipient of two Michelin stars, and tasted delicious, healthy prototypes of foods made with Unilever's Food Solutions brands under his direction.
FP: WHERE DID YOU LEARN TO COOK, AND WHEN DID YOU REALIZE YOUR DREAM WAS TO BECOME A CHEF?
SJ: I started at the age of 15 working in a pizza place and deli. I liked the work and signed up for a vocational program on cooking in our county. So, I would say at 16 years old, I thought this is the direction I wanted to go in. My grandfather was a chef so some of this rubbed off.
FP: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COOKING STYLE?
SJ: Simple and straightforward. I love working textures and flavors of foods to complement each other.
FP: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR APPROACH TO MENU/PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT?
SJ: So many things go into this. What are the needs of the customers, and who will use the product? I always need to understand what the gold standard is, as well as understanding the cuisine.
FP: WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF BRINGING A FOOD FROM THE KITCHEN TO THE MASS MARKET?
SJ: We deliver convenience products, which means they most likely need to be shelf stable or refrigerated. The challenge is how to have a long shelf life while trying to get the ingredients on the label as clean as possible, and lastly how to deliver great flavor at an acceptable sodium level.
FP: WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT WORKING IN FOODSERVICE VS. RESTAURANT VENUES?
SJ: My job is constantly changing as well as the customers I take care of from B&I (business and industry), to Colleges & Universities, to all types of restaurants and hotels. This means the food is always changing, as well as my understanding of all these types of operations. One can never get bored.
FP: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR UNILEVER PRODUCTS?
SJ: We are always striving to improve our products with cleaner labels and lowering the sodium in them. Again, what we do is give chefs and cooks more time to focus on the things that matter to them by giving them high quality products that save time and deliver great flavors.
FP: ARE YOU A MELLOW FELLOW, A TYRANT IN THE UNILEVER KITCHEN, OR SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN, AND HOW DO YOU WORK WITH YOUR TEAM?
SJ: I'm not a tyrant, but always serious -- maybe too serious. We have a great team of chefs with a great variety of experiences to pull from. It is an exceptional team that I'm very proud to be part of.
FP: WHAT FLAVORS, INGREDIENTS, AND CUISINES DO YOU PREDICT WILL BE POPULAR AND INFLUENCE MENU (AND RETAIL PRODUCT) DEVELOPMENT?
SJ: Asian and Latin cuisines seem to be some of the most popular to influence menus, as we see different ingredients from these areas and incorporate them into foods we use everyday. This is how I believe menus are changing
FP: WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR IDEAS FOR NEW MENU/FOOD ITEMS?
SJ: We do a program on world cuisines with the Culinary Institute of America. I've traveled extensively to record, understand and go into some depth on many world cuisines in the past six years. This really opens my eyes to different foods and flavors. In addition, Unilever has a network of about 300 chefs throughout the globe. This allows me to reach out to many of the culinary leads in a specific country when looking for new ideas.
FP: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CULINARY ACHIEVEMENTS YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
SJ: There are many things that I am proud of, but most recently it is the leadership of the ACF Culinary Team USA. Out of 27 countries, we achieved an overall 3rd place finish at the World Cup in Luxembourg, our best finish in 20 years. Another achievement is passing my Master Chef's exam in 1997. It's sad to say, but I was the only one to pass that year.