Juggling the demands of culinary instruction with those of running a restaurant is challenging, but there are perks, said Wilson Njenga, co-owner and chef of Caribbean Island restaurant on City Island in the Bronx, N.Y. Njenga also teaches at Monroe College in neighboring New Rochelle, N.Y. The school has served as a great recruiting source for interns and employees to work at his two-year-old restaurant.
Njenga, 33, a native of Kenya and a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, studied culinary arts in the Bahamas before coming to the United States. He took a job teaching Latin and Caribbean cuisine at Monroe while he was an executive chef at a Caribbean fusion restaurant in Manhattan. He kept teaching, however, when he opened Caribbean Island.
Monroe’s School of Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts has flourished in the past three years with enrollment jumping from a few dozen students to 200 this past fall. Many of the instructors are professional chefs like Njenga.
Running a restaurant is demanding enough, why take the time to teach also?
I saw the need for knowledge. I see kids working in the industry who are missing a lot. They don’t understand the reason for things. There are some people who are just doing it for the money, so they have no passion. Or they are too passionate and do not want to follow the ground rules. A good chef is dedicated and has passion, but he also is willing to follow the guidelines and learn how to manage money.
How many students have you hired from the college?
We’ve hired three, and I have four or five who are doing externships. I have a fantastic group of Monroe students working with me. For them, the restaurant becomes a continuation from school. They know my standards, and they know what I expect. I think it’s good for them, too. What they learn in the morning they are doing here in the evening.
Do you worry about taking on too much?
I’m young, and being young is the time to pay your dues. The industry is a challenging industry. Kids need to be prepared. I’ve been doing this for a while now. It’s a part of me.