Chef Rob Dumas’s love for food has brought him to kitchens in far-flung, high-profile places, from a submarine off the Virginia coast to the White House Navy Mess. Now, he’s at the University of Maine, for what may be his most creative and challenging gig yet.
Dumas joined UMaine this summer as its food science innovation coordinator. The newly created position oversees the management and outreach for the food science facilities that the university has to offer.
With his new position at the helm of these underutilized resources, Dumas not only hopes to teach Mainers more about food, but also to raise the profile for Maine-made food products on the national stage.
From the White House to Maine
While Dumas was working the restaurant circuit in his hometown of New Orleans in his 20s, he decided he wanted to go to a top-notch culinary school. He joined the Navy, planning to eventually take advantage of the G.I. Bill to pay for his education. He spent five years as a cook on a Navy submarine docked outside of Norfolk, Virginia.
“I learned that making food with love and care creates a family-like bond,” Dumas said. “Outside of food, these 140 guys had nothing to look forward to. Food became the focal point of everyone’s life.”
Moreover, he was one of the only chefs on-board with professional cooking experience prior to joining the crew.
“I distinguished myself and advanced quickly in rank because of that,” he said.
Soon, he was hired as a chef for the White House Navy Mess, a Navy-run dining facility in the basement of the West Wing. For the first four years of the Obama administration, Dumas not only cooked in the White House, but he also traveled with the first family.
He fondly remembers cooking breakfast in the Obamas’ Chicago residence, and preparing a cocktail for the President on a brutally humid day in Rio de Janeiro that Obama proclaimed “the best damn martini [he’s] ever had.”
But it was Michelle Obama who inspired him most.
“It all goes back to Michelle,” Dumas said. “She got me into reading books by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. It opened my eyes to what a local food system could look like.”
Equipped with the G.I. Bill and his star-studded resume, Dumas moved on from cooking at the White House to studying and teaching as a fellow at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.
“Vermont is an amazing study in local food systems,” Dumas said.
After completing his coursework, he was hired as demo chef. He eventually landed in Maine where he served as the executive chef and director of Freshies.
“I had autonomy as to where wanted to take the brand,” Dumas said. “There is an emerging environment here in Maine [for fresh, local food].”
UMaine’s vision for its food future
Jason Bolton, associate extension professor and food safety specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, sat on the hiring committee for Dumas’s position. He sees Dumas’s hiring as a step towards helping the university’s state-of-the-art food science facilities be utilized to their maximum potential — especially the Dr. Matthew Highlands Pilot Plant, a state-of-the-art research and development facility with enormous potential for food producers around the state
The university’s Pilot Plant has existed in its current form and location for over a decade (Bolton himself ran the Pilot Plant while he was in graduate school at the University of Maine), but the position that Dumas applied for as manager of the Pilot Plant was newly restructured to include more education, outreach and industry projects.
“We saw a need for innovation,” Bolton said. “We needed someone to come in the position and not think of it as it current or past, but its future.”
When the job came up, Dumas jumped at the opportunity.
“What appealed to me was the opportunity to be part of a bigger conversation about food systems in New England with connectivity that I didn’t have as a chef,” Dumas said.
The hiring committee saw Dumas as a great fit for the new position.
“Maine is on the national radar for quality food,” Dumas said. “We have to develop processing infrastructure to bring that food to a larger market. There are consumers all over the country that want Maine products, but we don’t have the processing capacity to deliver it.”
Dumas getting the ball rolling
There are a number of facilities that Dumas manages in UMaine’s Hitchner Hall, including a sensory lab and a commercial-grade kitchen for food science classes and for commercial producers to develop and test shelf-stable products.
“[The commercial kitchen] has had one or two uses by public previously,” Dumas said. “It’s primarily been used for classes. I see a big opportunity for summer availability [for commercial producers].”
The pièce de résistance, though, is the Pilot Plant. It is filled to the brim with stainless steel appliances: ovens, hydrators, milkers, a cheese pressing table, freeze dryer and commercial single-truck smokehouse, just to name a few.
“I have a lot of cool toys around me,” Dumas said. “A lot of this is nicer than what we had at culinary school.”
Dumas plans to have workshops for a range of skill levels, from hobbyists to professionals. He envisions an industry-specific meat processing school and workshops for seafood processing and literacy.
Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is working with Dumas “Meat Science Series” of classes and workshops that are open to the public. He started working with Dumas after he attended one of Knight’s swine workshops.
“He’s really pragmatic in his approach to food and cooking, so you don’t get a lot of fluff,” Knight said. “You just get good information from him.”
“I’m certain most people don’t know that facility exists,” Knight laughed. “We’re going to be doing a lot more outreach and community involvement and that’s really going to spring that facility forward and get it up and running to full capacity.”