Jamal Lake: “If there is a will, there is a way”

I wish someone would’ve told me the 5 tough truths of the industry when I started out. They are you won’t get paid, you will be overworked, you will not have holidays, you will have to pay your own wages, and you will make mistakes.To be honest, maybe I was told all these things, but […]

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I wish someone would’ve told me the 5 tough truths of the industry when I started out. They are you won’t get paid, you will be overworked, you will not have holidays, you will have to pay your own wages, and you will make mistakes.

To be honest, maybe I was told all these things, but I didn’t listen! …I love what I do and don’t have any regrets.

Aspart of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jamal Lake.

Jamal, a native of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, has been an entrepreneur since the age of 10 when he first started selling cookies to his neighbors. Since then his business ventures have included selling coconuts and juices at the West Palm Beach GreenMarket before eventually opening Ganache with Joan Lewis, a friend he met at the Florida Culinary Institute. The bakery and cafe in Downtown West Palm Beach serves up delicious food and sweets and is also where Lake holds classes to help everyone learn how to bake their own delicious goodies.

From his humble beginnings in the Virgin Islands to originally starting his shop in Florida without a working oven, Lake’s journey shows that one can overcome all odds with a little passion, grit, and sugar. Ganache opened in 2011 with Lake and Lewis at the helm. The bakery is now on its ninth year of operation. Lake has also competed on the Food Network.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Iknew very early on that I was destined to be creative in the kitchen and as I grew older, it developed into a real passion for culinary arts. Any chance I got; I’d be in the kitchen helping my mom. While at the St. Croix Educational Complex High School I enrolled in the culinary arts program led by Chef Anton Doos. This is where I got to see what was possible from the perspective of a culinary career. Upon graduation, I moved to West Palm Beach to attend the Florida Culinary Institute, where I obtained a degree in International Baking and Pastries with a concentration in Food and Beverage Management. From there, I went on to work at some of Florida’s top restaurants and resorts, including the PGA National Resort, Bice Ristorante, Mirasol Country Club and The Breakers. In the early 2000’s I opened my first business, which was simply a stand at the West Palm Beach Green Market called Jamal Cakes and Things. It was primarily a juice stand where I served fresh coconut and other tropical juices as well as Cruzan rum cakes. I love to experiment and bring real creativity into my cooking and baking. I worked so hard to get myself ready for my own place. I’m so proud of Ganache Bakery Cafe in Downtown West Palm Beach.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

We focus on custom cakes and desserts at the bakery, as cooking and creating with sugar is really my passion. However, we also offer tropical juices and rum cakes; it’s important to me that I stay true to my Caribbean roots, since that’s what inspired me to start cooking in the first place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I try to live by the quote “If there is a will, there is a way.” It’s a mantra that stays relevant in my life through all the ups and downs. When I wanted to open my first business and wasn’t sure where to start, but I relied on my determination to find a way to make it happen. I had volunteered at the West Palm Beach Green Market while I was in culinary school, and one day it dawned on me that this was a great way to start a business without having to open a store front. That same day, I went to the City’s special events office and got an application. When I met with the person in charge and told him that I wanted to sell coconuts, tropical juices and rum cake, he suggested I also add sugarcane juice to my offerings. He said that addition would make me a hit and my stand application would be accepted immediately. So, I started searching for a sugarcane juicer and found one in Miami. My mom and I drove down and bought it on the spot. That’s how it all began.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I once burned a cake so badly, and while it’s funny now, it sure wasn’t then. The whole thing was charred, and I was running out of time and had to find a way to save it! I carved off all the burned edges and moistened it with syrup, then decorated as normal. After I sold the cake, the customer returned and couldn’t stop raving about how super moist the cake was and kept saying it was the best cake they’ve ever had. I never told them how it all came to be.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

When you first start out, it’s incredibly hard to find funding and we couldn’t find a single bank that believed in our vision. They didn’t think I would succeed even though I knew in my heart I would. I ended up having to turn to friends and family, and even take out 401K loans to get the money we needed. Those days were filled with a lot of prayer and fasting.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Love. Of course, taste and presentation are important too, but customers notice and respond to the care you put into a dish.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal’ for you’?

That would be curried lobster and seasoned rice, Caribbean style. My wife’s famous mac and cheese is a close second, though.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

We’re working on distributing our famous Cruzan rum cakes nationwide. We’ve got a few logistics to work through, but we hope to have it so you can share this taste of the islands with your friends and family over the holidays. We think this shift will also help us continue to adapt to the new normal.

As soon as the COVID-19 gets under control we will be restarting our baking classes, which is something I’m also excited to start back up. I love sharing my passion with others.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?

Be sure you’re getting into this world because you love it. Don’t pursue this for fame or fortune because you’re going to have a tough few years starting out and it’s the passion for the industry that is going to get you through the hard times. That love will carry you through so you can make sure it all works out in the end. And always remember to be creative; don’t be scared to make changes. Sometimes the path that you choose is not the one that works so you must always be flexible and willing to adapt and adjust.

COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?

COVID-19 have been hard on everyone, especially those of us in the culinary industry. We need to have customers buying and consuming our products, or else we are wasting food and supplies by simply doing our job and cooking. Thankfully, online delivery services make it a little easier for us to maintain a customer base, even without foot traffic. We’ve also shifted some of our marketing outreach to social media and our website. Both platforms need to be fun, easy ways for customers to see the products we offer and encourage them to come and give us a try. We are also getting creative and expanding our offerings, including homemade beer. We’re also working on developing “grab and go” packaging for our items to make it easy for customers to frequent our shop while also following physical distancing guidelines.

Store owners should also make sure they offer gift cards: we have had a lot of customers purchase gift cards just to help us sustain our business.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

I wish someone would’ve told me the 5 tough truths of the industry when I started out. They are you won’t get paid, you will be overworked, you will not have holidays, you will have to pay your own wages, and you will make mistakes.

To be honest, maybe I was told all these things, but I didn’t listen! As a kid my mom worked many different jobs, including some in restaurants. I remember her telling me often that I should think twice before going into the culinary industry because you spend all day on your feet; hers always hurt when she came home. She also didn’t like how it kept her from her family. I’m glad I didn’t heed her warnings though; I love what I do and don’t have any regrets.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Well, I can’t choose just one so let’s just say there are a few things you must try when you come to Ganache! Among them, our chocolate ganache cupcake which is to die for and our signature Cruzan rum cakes that are made with rum imported from St. Croix, where I was born.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I love the idea of a “bake me a cake” type of movement. Something that really hits me as a baker is how important cakes are to celebrations as a society. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, or any type of party, adults and kids really look to cakes to sort of seal the deal as a celebration’s centerpiece. In fact, I have seen more than one adult cry when I bake them cakes because their parents never bought them one as a child. I would really like to make sure this is something everyone gets to experience, where we work as a group to make sure everyone gets a chance to celebrate with a nice cake. We could even make it more specific and bring special cakes kids that are ill or going through some sort of sickness. I think it would bring a lot of smiles to people’s faces.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I would direct people to our new website, ganachebakerycafe.com/. They can also follow us on social media. We’re on Facebook (@GanacheBakeryCafe), Instagram (@ganachebakerywpb) and Twitter (@ganachebakeryca).

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