"I take a sushi-grade tuna, marinated in jerk spices, and then I wrap it in wonton dough. Then it's flash fried, so you get that nice crispy crunch, while still keeping the tuna raw," said Executive Chef Raymond Jackson, describing one of his many unique dishes that will be served at Alvin and Friends, a southern and Caribbean contemporary bistro opening soon at 49 Lawton St. in New Rochelle.
Jackson has ambitious plans for the restaurant. He cited Mario Batali's refinement of Italian food and his old boss, Emeril Lagassi's elevation of New Orleans cuisine as an inspiration.
"Southern or Caribbean cuisine hasn't evolved like that," said Jackson.
"I'm taking traditional southern and Caribbean cuisine and putting a new spin on it," said the chef, who was a competitor on the Food Network show "Chopped."
Jackson didn't always have aspirations to cook. While majoring in accounting at Georgetown he took a part-time job working for a catering company.
"Working catering really gave me a taste of what it was like to be a chef," said Jackson. "Watching those guys move around the kitchen so quickly cooking all sorts of food made me want to do it."
Yet it wasn't until he was working at his first job when he realized that accounting wasn't for him. He then decided to enroll in the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, where he realized his passion for the craft of cooking.
From there Jackson went south to Emeril's restaurant in New Orleans, where he started out as a line cook. He eventually worked his way up to executive chef.
"It was a lot harder than I anticipated. I really did not know how challenging it would be, the long hours, getting burned," said Jackson. "But it's like Emeril always said—if it was easy, everybody would be doing it."
After working for Emeril, Jackson continued to build his resume. From New Orleans he went to Blue Smoke, a Southern soul food restaurant in New York City, then to Norman's, a new world cuisine restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla. It was there where he first got a taste for Caribbean cuisine.
"Down in Miami I was really influenced by Cuban cooking," said Jackson. "Mixing that with Cajun and southern influences—I really get a kick out of doing things like that."
But don't call Alvin and Friends a simple fusion restaurant.
"Having been in the industry so long, I've seen trends come and go," said Jackson. "But traditional southern cooking always has fresh ingredients— straight to the table. I'm taking those values into a more modern and contemporary setting."
The menu will feature foods such as curry mussel bisque, fried chicken, jumbo lump crab cakes and braised short ribs.
Theresa Kump-Leghorn is a partner in the venture, and she said New Rochelle is the ideal location for Alvin and Friends.
"One of the great things about [owner] Alvin Clayton is that he really values community, which is why he chose to live in New Rochelle and why he is calling the restaurant Alvin and Friends," said Kump-Leghorn.
"New Rochelle's strength is its diversity, and Alvin has put together a group of investors that reflects the diversity of this community. I'm really excited to be one of the 'friends,'" she said.
The location of the new restaurant is great for Jackson, who loves cooking with fresh ingredients, because the local farmers market is across the street.
"If something comes in and the quality isn't there, I'm not going to try and pass it on to the customer," said Jackson, "If we get in fish, it's going to be the whole fish. None of that frozen, pre-packaged stuff."
Jackson loves New Rochelle and believes the restaurant will be a success.
"We want people to come in, have a good time," he said. "We really want to be here, and be part of the community for a long time."