When it came time to select a caterer for the recent celebration of the life of the President Emeritus Jack Miller, event organizers didn’t have to go too far to find one. Chef Jay, a food entrepreneur, cookbook author, and CCSU philosophy major, was happy to help serve up a smokehouse barbecue spread in Miller’s honor.
Chef Jay, whose given name is Lillard Royal Lewis Jr., has catered several events at CCSU. The tribute to Miller, held under the alumni tent before CCSU took on the Columbia University Lions Sept. 15, featured a mouthwatering menu of beef brisket, jerk salmon, and a sweet and hot version of a North African shredded chicken, plus sweet smoked corn, Blue Devil Brownies, and deep-fried cheese cake with raspberry sauce.
But Lewis’ culinary repertoire isn’t limited to barbecue. Over the years he has melded his interest in cooking and philosophy into a culinary enterprise that goes well beyond catering. He now specializes in vegan and non-vegan fare prepared according to ayurvedic standards and works with private clients around the country to develop sustainable approaches to food that incorporate spirituality and dietary goals.
His self-published cookbooks are part memoir and part culinary guidebook, with some spiritual musings sprinkled throughout. The first book, “The Gentleman’s Cookbook,” was published in 2014 and mixes lifestyle advice and personal recipes. “The Food Philosopher, his upcoming second book, explores love, mysticism, symbolism, and social justice.
“It was just sort of things I needed to say — that’s honestly what started the second book,” Lewis explains. “The last section is on metaphysics and health, with essays I’ve written, and in between the essays are my recipes.”
Lewis was born on Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., where his father was stationed. After he graduated from high school, Lewis served for eight years in the Army and Army National Guard. Later, he lived in Philadelphia before moving back to Hartford, New Britain, and finally, Windsor, where he still lives.
Lewis did not set out to pursue a career in the culinary arts — it’s a calling that found him, he says, when a manager at a wholesale club where he was working as a cashier wouldn’t give him the day off to get married. Undeterred, he quit, got married, and landed a new job washing dishes at a Little Taste of Texas, a popular barbeque restaurant in South Windsor. Not long after he started dabbling with his own barbecue recipes at home.
“I couldn’t afford to go to cooking school, so I bought a lot of culinary books and read,” Lewis says.
His efforts landed him jobs at other restaurants, each with successively bigger roles. At Grant’s restaurant in West Hartford, Lewis made salads and worked his way up to desserts. Hungry to learn more, he came in off the clock and observed trained chefs at work. From there, Lewis went to Trumbull Kitchen and The Goodwin Hotel in Hartford, where he worked as a sous chef and banquet chef, respectively. When the Goodwin closed around 2010, Lewis decided he was ready to launch his own company, which he incorporated in 2014 as FUD (pronounced Food) Inc.
Enrolling at CCSU was the fulfillment of his pledge to his wife to earn a college degree. The arrival of their two sons gave him some added motivation, he says. Lewis started in 2012, first as a business major and later switching to philosophy. He took an African American Philosophy course with Professor Felton Best, who soon became a mentor.
“He knew my father and mother,” Lewis says. “When I finally got to CCSU he took an interest in making sure that my academic career was a success.”
Lewis will graduate in December, just as his entrepreneurial pursuits continue to expand. He now only caters small private parties or large events like the one honoring Miller. He is also introducing a line of herbs and spices that is currently in development.
“Chef Jay’s is the kind of student success story that Jack Miller would have loved. He served his country, worked his way through school, and expanded his professional skills and mission through his studies with the Philosophy Department. This type of synergy is one of the best outcomes we can imagine for our students,” says Vice President for Institutional Advancement Christopher Galligan. “And if you ever get the opportunity to try his deep-fried cheesecake, make sure you do, and save room for seconds!”