News for the Neighborhood #44
Chef Jim Douglas

Chef Jim Douglas

In the mid–1960s when Jim Douglas stood on tiptoe at the kitchen counter and pinched perogies for his Grandma Helen, she thought she was simply keeping the five–year–old busy making the dumplings from her homeland in Poland. Little did she know that her grandson would one day don a professional apron and work for Wolfgang Puck, orchestrate four–course meals for eight–hundred, and perhaps the most challenging of all, satisfy the fickle palate of 1,700 college students and serve up 5,000 plates a day.

As Chapman University’s executive chef, Douglas has the daunting, yet satisfying task of feeding the school’s students seven days a week in 12 different venues.

“I’m working at the Disneyland for chefs,” says Douglas. “I wake up excited every day to come and play in the kitchen and create new ways to make food interesting for the students.”

When he took over the food service at Chapman in May 2002, Douglas, who works for Sodexo, a food–service company that subcontracts with Chapman, could have dished up traditional college fare like macaroni and cheese and meatloaf, but he chose to elevate Chapman’s cuisine to new heights. While you’ll find some of the typical staples at Chapman (they grill the ubiquitous burger every day), and there is a sushi bar, he keeps the students engaged by serving up more unusual entrees–many of them originating from regional cuisines and consisting of organic produce and foods from local suppliers. Most Fridays they serve paella, and their pad Thai, which took Douglas months to perfect, always draws long lines. He is currently working on expanding their vegan station.

Chapman’s president, Jim Doti, comments on Douglas’s talents as a chef. “Jim’s heart and soul go into his food, and he has helped inculcate that passion to his fellow workers. Since Jim and Sodexo arrived at Chapman, we have the best food in higher education–certainly better than USC’s.”

Linda Dixon, associate vice chancellor of advancement at Brandman University, which is part of the Chapman University System, has worked with Douglas on many events involving food service. “Whether Jim is preparing a four–course meal for 750 at the American Celebration or an intimate dinner for four, the meals are all excellent,” she says. “He’s a phenomenal chef who knows how to combine creativity and taste, and he has a flair for presentation.”

While Douglas is an obvious born chef, there was a time when he failed to answer cuisine’s call. Even though he always loved cooking, he studied engineering in college and initially worked as a field engineer for a large utility company in Massachusetts, where he was born and lived until his mid–thirties.

“I’m not really sure why, but I thought being a mechanical engineer was the right thing to do,” he says. “Engineering didn’t light my passion like cooking did, though. There’s a certain energy behind the lines (in the kitchen). Once you’re exposed to it, you can’t get enough. When I was an engineer, I never woke up in the morning and felt excited about looking at generators.”

In 1985, when the utility company Douglas worked for downsized and offered retraining financial assistance to terminated employees, he followed his heart and attended culinary school. After graduation, for several years he worked in a variety of restaurants on the east coast, including large banquet houses and a historic inn dating back to the 1700s. In 1999, he and his wife, Pam, decided to try moving out to California–Douglas motivated by his interest in the cutting–edge cuisine found on the west coast and a desire to leave the cold weather behind.

“Our three children (all of whom have since relocated to California) were in college and thought we’d gone middle–age crazy,” he recalls. Upon arriving, Douglas worked for Chapman for a little over a year for a different company and was then hired on as the executive chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Restaurant in Newport Beach. “I jumped at the chance to work for Puck because I’d always been intrigued by the idea of California cuisine,” he says. “Puck has a dynamic style and attitude that focuses on fresh, local ingredients that provide you with a burst–in–your–mouth flavor. We had 43 fresh sauces that we built from scratch every day.”

To Douglas, who also runs his own catering company known as the California Fresh Catering Co., the best dishes have simple roots. “All cuisines are influenced by what I would classify as peasant food,” he says. “A lot of the most interesting recipes have come out of necessity and involved the creative use of simple, readily available items that are transformed into something wonderful in the kitchen.” No doubt Grandma Helen would approve of that philosophy.

Sandhu Residence Hall and Conference Center

Opened in August 2009, the 200,000–square–foot Sandhu Residence Hall and Conference Center is the biggest enclosed structure on the Chapman University campus. The expansive building is home to the state–of–the–art Randall Dining Commons that features 12 different venues, including a sushi station, sandwich and salad bar, Euro kitchen, dessert station, and a pizza kitchen complete with an authentic wood–fired oven. The dining facility is also home to the OC–Chapman cooking show: “Reality Cooking with Jim Doti.”

Also located in the building are residential rooms for more than 300 upperclassmen, study rooms and recreation areas. And upstairs you’ll find a conference center with a reception hall that holds 500, a catering kitchen and hotel–like guest suites for visiting speakers and VIPs.

The Randall Dining Commons is open to the public for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. For more information, please call (714) 997-6706, or visit: Chapman University Dining Services.

Published in the Mar/Apr 2011 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph by Scott Montgomery

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