Showing us the Ropes: Getting to Know Julius ‘The Chef’ Jackson
For most people, reaching the heights of one career is more than enough to aspire towards. Whether it’s those 10,000 hours we all need to master a skill (according to Malcolm Gladwell’s sell-out book Outliers), or the compromises we have to make in our private lives, getting to the peak of any field is no picnic.
For Julius, ‘The Chef’ Jackson, however, achieving incredible things in one field was not enough. Fresh from assisting the chef competition during the Yacht Hop at the Caribbean Charter Yacht Show last December (see our write-up of the show here), we speak to the incredibly lovely and laid-back Julius about his career as a professional boxer, Olympic athlete, published author and nationally televised chef – and discover why he’s not straying far away from his much-loved home of St Thomas in the USVI any time soon.
First off, give us the potted history. How did you discover cooking and boxing?
I started off as an amateur boxer at the age of 13. My dad is Julian Jackson, a three-time world champion, and a boxing ‘Hall of Famer’ who was known for having one the hardest punches in the sport, so it was very prevalent in my home. I actually began by just boxing for the workout, and then it gradually grew on me as a sport, and I fell in love with it.
On the other side, I cooked my first meal when I was 10 years old (fried chicken, as it happens!) and fell in love with cooking because of the reaction you get from other people trying your food. I knew that I was going to do both, so I took all of my cooking courses throughout high school and boxed at the same time. Some of the older guys used to laugh at me because I was always in home economics class. Once I graduated high school, I said to my Dad: “I want to go to culinary school but I still want to box. Can I do both?” And he said, “Yes, of course, you can. Why not?!”
So I pursued both careers – I kept training, fighting and doing amateur tournaments, and also went to culinary school before working for the Marriott. I have done both my entire life, which is why my nickname is ‘The Chef’ in boxing.
Nowadays, I work as a head chef and manager at a non-profit, as well as running my own catering and private dinner company. I also work with the Department of Tourism for the Virgin Islands as the culinary ambassador, which is how I become involved with the fantastic Caribbean Charter Yacht Show.
You took part in the Beijing Olympics back in 2008. What were some of the most memorable moments?
Oh man, there were just so many: it was so much fun! It was such an eye-opener to the world and all of the possibilities out there. I represented the US Virgin Islands in the light-heavyweight category and team USA was right in front of us. The last team to walk out is always the basketball team, and so we were just in line waiting and chatting with all of these NBA All-Stars, like Kobe Byrant – like it was a normal day. It was crazy!
The energy in Beijing was also absolutely amazing. I was meeting all of these athletes who do other sports like synchronised swimming and water polo and seeing how, even though their training is different, they have the same kind of drive as I do. I punch people in the face for a living, and they’re dancing, but they still have the same kind of tenacious attitude as I do, which was really eye-opening to see. I will never forget taking part.
In the end, I lost to Kenny Egan from Ireland, and we are still friends to this day. He had far more experience than me at the time. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, “Don’t give up, keep going”, and I became professional in the end, and he didn’t. I was hoping to meet him in the pros, but that hasn’t happened unfortunately.
Time for us to get hungry. You released your book My Modern Caribbean Kitchen back in 2018. How would you define your cooking style?
I am classically trained and came up in the corporate world at the Marriott corporation, so I learnt that before learning Virgin Island cuisine. At culinary school, I had to cook for some of my housemates. We were all from different parts of the world and said we’d all cook something from our home town. So I rang up my mama and asked, “Yo, how do I do this mama?” and she told me, and I cooked some stew chicken – and it was the worst thing I ever made! I had to apologise to my buddies and say, ‘This is really not what we eat at home!” When I graduated, I made it my mission to learn how to cook the foods I grew up on.
I learned how to do callaloo, I learned how to actually cook stew chicken, peas and rice and so on. I then went about blending all of the island flavours with my classical cuisine. For example, we usually make oxtails with water, but my oxtails are done with beef stock. I love salmon, but it’s not a local fish, so you can stuff the salmon with Caribbean lobster which changes the texture. That’s my unique style – I like to marry the two styles of cooking in really creative ways.
That’s certainly made us hungry! What would be your top tips for succeeding as a yacht chef specifically?
Three things: Firstly, you need to be really organised and plan out your meals and storage in a smart way, due to the limited space you have on board. This needs to be a top priority, so don’t let it be on the last burner.
Secondly, you have got to be fun and creative. In this field, you might need to go out and explain your dishes to the guests, so it is all about creating an experience with your food, not just cooking something delicious. It is all about putting things out there that they might never have seen before, so it is an opportunity to be really creative.
Thirdly, even though the kitchens are small, don’t put yourself in a box. Being a yacht chef offers the chance to be really explorative in your thinking and take some risks – just explore new things and try combinations which you’ve never done before. Why not!
Finally, you are a huge ambassador for the Virgin Islands in everything you do. What is it that has keeps you here, alongside your globe-trotting career?
I absolutely love living here with my family, and a lot of that is because of the community aspect - as well as the incredible food and nature! We are just so small and tight-knit as a community – I travel all around the world for work and I always crave coming back. If you ever need any help with anything, there are so many people you can call upon, and you will inevitably run into a cousin or family friend if you are out and about.
A lot of people in my position, who are at the highest levels in whatever they do, whether that be in sport or business, tend to move away, but I’ve made it my mission to pass on my mentality to the younger generation who live here and try to lead by example. I do a lot of community work and want to make sure that the message gets across to them: we are on an island together, and this is for you. You can also grow and achieve great things.
Pick up a copy of My Modern Caribbean Kitchen by Julius 'The Chef' Jackson here.