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Ashebre: Art with food Ashebre

Sunday, September 10, 2017

When Oji Jaja decided to walk away from studies in engineering at 17, he felt relieved. “I left after I realised that this wasn't what I wanted to do.”

He started to think about where he would go next and decided he would become a chef. “I thought about it and decided that that was going to be my career. I had always been experimenting with food and I'd always find myself in the kitchen, from I was six.”

His next stop was the Runaway HEART Academy, which was the foundation for his culinary journey. “At HEART I learnt how to use recipes properly, knife skills and discipline. I don't believe I could be where I am today without that institution.”

Since then he has had quite the career, working in some of the premier hotels in Jamaica and in Florida. The Hylton, the Ritz Carlton in Montego Bay, where he stayed for a little over a year. Followed by the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida.

“Next I went off to Miami to work at the Ritz Carlton.” He did this while attending the Johnson and Whales University in Miami where he studied culinary arts.

He then decided to step out on his own and start Jaja Culinary Services Ltd or Ashebre — the virtual restaurant.

Ashebre is a full-service catering company. “I like to use the term, food service enterprise. We've been in operation on and off since I got back to Jamaica in 2006.”

“My reason for starting (the company) is that, I recognised a need for higher-end catering services in Jamaica, showcasing Jamaican cuisine at an international level.” Says Jaja.

“We offer a service that I consider to be a restaurant dining experience, wherever you are.” They come to you. “What we do is that we serve fresh foods, and that's what really sets us apart. We only use fresh ingredients most of the time and we do a lot of our meal preparations on site, which ensures the quality of food that we serve. This is also what gives us our competitive edge.”

He asserts that they serve “nothing from a can, use no powdered seasonings and any kind of dry rub that we do use, we normally make ourselves; and all of our recipes are pretty much made from scratch”.

The presentation is also beautiful.

“Ashebre is my middle name, and it means the artist; I truly see what I do as art with food.”

And they've come to live up to that expectation.

“In everything that we do there is a strong level of detail that goes with it. I strongly believe that persons need to have a pleasant dining experience. The overall dining experience is essential and it is important that it's a pleasant one. We consider every detail. From how we design menus to how we do our prep for the meals that we serve to our clients.”

They offer a variety of services not just meals. “We offer event management services, culinary classes, both group and private, we offer private chef service. We also have a condiment line we launched over a year ago. However, our main business is destination weddings.”

They also offer a restaurant consulting service for new and existing businesses that would like to raise their standards and operate in a more productive manner.

Currently operating from 56 Old Hope Road, there was a time two and a half years ago, when they were operating from his mom's house. “I was working out of my mom's house for a while, because I couldn't afford my own space just yet.

“When we started out the business it was a little bit challenging, as it took time to educate our customers that we are offering something that's a premium product and why it was premium. However, over the years we've been growing…I believe steadily every year for about a year.”

Jaja has had the opportunity to work with GeeJam as the private chef for Tom Cruise while he was here for two weeks on the island. “That was quite an experience.”

While in Washington DC, he also cooked for Michelle Obama. “Other persons of note that I cooked for were Drake, Amy Winehouse while she was alive, and Katie Holmes.”

Jaja believes in giving back and so does his best to hire young talent who want an opportunity to learn. “I strongly believe in developing new talent, so you'll find that most of the people who work with us are fresh out of culinary school. This gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I'm contributing to their development as premier professionals, and that's one of the things I take most pride in because I feel like I'm influencing their lives in a positive way.”



Ashebre credits his family for his continued success.

“My family has been extremely supportive and I don't think I'd have been able to accomplish all we have done. Tshani my sister, has been instrumental in helping how we market. My mother (Nsombi Jaja) is my biggest cheerleader and at the moment my biggest publicist. There isn't a speaking engagement that she has that she doesn't mention myself or my business. My other two sisters and father have also been very supportive. I must say I am so blessed to have the family that I have. They've always stood beside me, behind me and at times even in front of me to pull me forward at times.”

“The entrepreneurial journey — boy, there were some rough times and I expect challenges in the future as well, because as we grow we all have some challenges, but we will overcome them and continue to offer the level of service that we've been known to deliver.

“There were times I considered Giving up and going to get a job in a hotel. I entered the market when 'healthy' wasn't necessarily the way to go. There were even times that I put myself in debt, just to keep the business afloat. There were times I had to ask friends to jump in and help out at no cost because I wasn't able to afford staff. But we wanted to just get out there, we even had to take some jobs at no cost or at a loss, but that's entrepreneurial life. Thankfully we are now past that stage and are doing well.”

One particular challenge for him has been training of staff, because the staff changes on a regular basis. “Once they think they've got enough they move on, whether to get what they perceive to be a better salary, or to something else, so that can be disappointing.”

He gives special mention to Shanilele Whitley, his sous -chef who he says “definitely helped to ease all of that. She has been with the company for nine years. “The Jamaica Observer also gave me great support when I returned to Jamaica in 2006. Mrs.Novia McDonald featured me, and has since been a great support,” he said.

“Since I started my culinary career this was always my aim. I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I've never seen myself as the person who would be working for anyone, as I've always felt I had something more to offer.

“My goal is to get my business to the point where it can function without me, where I can leave a legacy for my children, to ensure that I can give them a good start.”