From Coast Guard to caterer

By Deborah Pankey
Updated 4/26/2011 1:17 PM
  • Jeramie Campana garnishes his Southwestern Crab Cakes with a simple avocado puree seasoned with salt and fresh lime juice.

      Jeramie Campana garnishes his Southwestern Crab Cakes with a simple avocado puree seasoned with salt and fresh lime juice. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • To look at him you wouldn't think chef Jeramie Campana has any weaknesses, but this former Coast Guard seaman has a soft spot for brownies and barbecue pizza.

      To look at him you wouldn't think chef Jeramie Campana has any weaknesses, but this former Coast Guard seaman has a soft spot for brownies and barbecue pizza. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

As a student at Barrington High School Jeramie Campana showed more interested in working on cars and extreme sports like snowboarding and wakeboarding than he did most other things.

With his mind set on a career in law enforcement the 1999 graduate joined the Coast Guard and came out slinging hash, so to speak, instead of a gun.

"They were short-handed in the kitchen and as a newbie I was assigned to wash dishes," Campana, now 30, recalls. "I got the hang of how they did things in the kitchen.

"We were not eating Army rations, we were eating real good food."

After his four-year tour in Traverse City, Mich. he returned to Barrington and joined the crew at Tastefully Yours where he worked alongside acclaimed chef Don Yamauchi who ran the storied Le Francais in Wheeling for a spell.

Today Campana owns Wild Asparagus Fine Catering and Gourmet Take-along in downtown Barrington. He lives in Lakewood with his wife, Debra, and children, Lucie, 14, Nate, 12, and Noah, 9.

Did you have interest in cooking before the Coast Guard? I can't say that I ever thought I would become a chef and own my own catering company. I had one dish that I made growing up. It was a glorified "homemade" Hamburger Helper-style meal. The main ingredients were a can of crushed tomatoes, ground beef, elbow macaroni noodles and way to many spices. I rarely helped make dinner growing up but we always had dinner made from scratch on the table at 6:30 p.m. every night.

Describe the culinary training you received in the Coast Guard. Due to a shortage of FSSs (Food Service Specialists), once I proved that I could handle myself in the galley I was pretty much on my own. I learned a lot from trial-and-error and never really had any formal training. I can honestly say in the beginning I was self taught. I taught myself the basics and then continued to expound upon them. I made breads, sauces, soups, all the meals and desserts from scratch. Following recipes as a basic guideline and adding my own twists to them is really when I discovered the versatility of foods if you are brave enough to try new things.

Do you have any culinary mentors? I have an amazing mentor in the culinary world, Executive chef Don Yamauchi of MotorCity Casino Hotel, Detroit. We worked side-by-side for a few years (in Barrington) and became great friends. It would be way to hard to nail down one specific thing I learned from him. From the kitchen to the generality of life Don is just an amazing person and an incredible chef. He helped bring my skill set to an entirely new level.

What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I have my own blend of spices that I use. Can't give away all my secrets but it is a great mix that subtly brings out the natural flavors in the food. I would say almost everything savory that I make has at least a dash.

What is your favorite piece of kitchen equipment? My chef knife. It slices, it dices, chops and cuts. I have had blisters from spending quality time with my chef knives. Useless if not kept sharp, but an amazing tool when maintained and handled properly.

Do you have a guilty pleasure food? It's a toss up between brownies and barbecue pizza. If I could have barbecue pizza for dinner and brownies for dessert I would be a happy boy. I spend all day making specialty foods and love the junk food.

What was the last meal you cooked at home? Homemade Ravioli stuffed with white cheddar, scallions and garlic with a homemade gravy. I'm Italian so its gravy not "sauce."

What do you do in your spare time? Well, as you can tell by the photo, tattoos are a big part of my life. It's a huge commitment when you start covering entire limbs. I enjoy the open road on my Harley. I have a lot of blood, sweat and tears in it and love riding. I have recently started reading rock star biographies. Those 80s hair bands were out of control. With so many charities knocking on our door we have to pick and choose what we do. Some of our favorites are Kid Leukemia, WINGS and Mozart Festival. All great foundations and we really enjoy supporting them.

We're coming up on spring entertaining season, any advice for people planning to host large gatherings? Best piece of advise I can give if you are looking to plan an event with us (or any catering company), book your date NOW!

As a company, we work on a first-come-first-served- basis. Entertaining is rarely a last minute decision, and if it is you are probably not calling a caterer. Everyone knows the dates of their upcoming events, so book early. Not only does that help out the caterer but you then have piece of mind knowing well in advance that everything is taken care of.

Tell us about this recipe: Southwest Crab Cake with Avocado Salt and Lime Puree. I am sure there are other crab cake versions out there but the difference with mine is that you get a crab cake made of 80 percent lump crabmeat, and 20 percent veggies and panko bread crumbs. It is not caky like some. A good tip is make the mix a day in advance. This allows any liquid to absorb into the bread crumbs so that when you are shaping them they hold together and do not fall apart. Also do not over mix. Over mixing breaks down the crabmeat and you lose the "lump" part of the crab cake.

Try this at home or from Wild Asparagus Fine Catering and Gourmet Take-along, 114 Applebee St., Barrington. (847) 382-3400.

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