PEMBROKE — Guests who dine in the Chancellor’s Dining Room at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke may notice cuisine with more flair than usual.
What they may not know is that they are eating from the kitchen of Chef Theo Gumbs, a rising international celebrity chef and entrepreneur. He has served as Sodexo’s executive chef in residence at UNCP since late 2014.
That his star is on the rise was confirmed on July 19, when Gumbs appeared as a guest chef on the Food Network’s top-rated program, “Cutthroat Kitchen,” with host Alton Brown. This edition, which may be viewed online, is titled “My Kitchen for a Horse” and features “a group of chefs on bouncy horses facing a breakfast biscuit challenge.”
“I auditioned for ‘Restaurant Start-up.’ I didn’t get it, but they liked my audition and called,” Gumbs said.
“Cutthroat Kitchen is not a cooking show; it’s a reality cooking show,” he said. “All the chefs on the show can cook, but they sabotage you. Try making onion soup without onions, or cooking on your back, or with no pot.”
Gumbs’ cooking, a Caribbean melting pot of flavors with a Southern influence that he picked up in Atlanta, appeals to adventurous foodies looking for something new and fresh.
Gumbs cooked for all the finalists in the recent chancellor search, including coconut ginger butternut squash, lollipop moonshine wings and ginger hoisin braised short ribs with sweet potatoes.
A chef-entrepreneur in the Food Network mold, Gumbs is banking on the idea that diners want more exotic flavors inspired from around the globe. In the Virgin Islands, he owned a Thai-Caribbean fusion restaurant. He strongly favors fresh, organic farm-to-table trends.
“People identify with indigenous foods from around the world,” he said. “That I trained in the South is a big plus for me. Peach tarts from peaches picked at the peak of their freshness is what people want.”
Gumbs competed against many of the top chefs in events throughout the Caribbean. A stint in Georgia that including a stop at Emory University expanded his repertoire and infused a Southern flare into his art. At Emory, he cooked in a kosher kitchen under a rabbi’s supervision. He also cooked for President Jimmy Carter.
The islands, however, are his inspiration, and what better source. Through history, most of the European nations sailed through the Caribbean and left their mark. Africa, Latin America and even Indian cooking formed a rich melting pot of food.
“It’s Caribbean-style with my flare,” he said. “I want to showcase the islands on a global stage. I want to show people that the food of the Virgin Islands is a bonafide ethnic cuisine. I want to promote culture by way of cuisine.”
Born in the Virgin Islands, Gumbs began cooking with his parents as a teenager. When a high school carpentry filled up, he signed up for a class in culinary arts. Working his way up from there, he cooked for some of the top names in the hospitality industry.
After competing successfully in many events, he migrated to the U.S. to seek even greater challenges. He joined Sodexo three and a half years ago at a college in Georgia.
“Working for Sodexo gives me a wide range of flexibility and creativity,” Gumbs said. “I can give a festive spin on Southern cuisine.
There are other advantages. “As a corporate chef, you work 75-80 hours a week,” he said. “Here, I can spend more time with my children.”
For diners looking for a Caribbean-style treat, Chef Theo will be preparing food for the upcoming Support Our Students Beach Party on Aug. 7. For information about the event, contact the Office of Advancement at 910-521-6252 or email [email protected]
This story was submitted by Scott Bigelow, public information officer for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He can be reached at [email protected]