Photo/Courtesy of Chef Kerish Robles
It is quite fitting that the melting pot of cultures that is St. Thomas, Virgin Islands would give birth to culinary expert Kerish Robles. Kerish, affectionately known as Chef Kerish was a cooking prodigy. As a teenager, she became one of the first two Junior Chefs to secure a spot on the U.S. Virgin Islands Culinary Team. After 17 years in the education and food industry, Kerish has been selected to create a new culinary arts program at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Kerish’s love affair with food began in her family’s vegetable farm when she was just old enough to walk. Growing up in a vegetarian household she was exposed to many vegan dishes that are now en vogue globally, a fact she likes to point out to her friends.
Farming was an all-encompassing experience at the Robles household. Kerish and her sisters spent their childhood digging holes, cultivating the land, and understanding the nature of the soil and how best to make the most of it. She boasts that she learned to cut the grass at an early age, reveling in the independence it gave her.
For someone raised in this environment and with a natural gift for conjuring meals in the kitchen, one would assume the culinary arts were always her passion, but somewhat surprisingly, cooking wasn’t. Instead, Kerish Robles’ desire was to help and educate others. She has simply chosen cooking as her means to do it.
In high school, Kerish was an active member in many student clubs seeking to learn and help out wherever she could. The soft-spoken child who was a keen observer was often overlooked or thought to be less talented than her peers because of her quiet personality. This gave her the mettle she needed to prove them wrong and make a difference.
She told Unstoppable Yes You, “I was very much an introverted extrovert. I did what I had to do in a group setting but as soon as that’s done, I want to leave. I don’t want to stay around and engage (in conversation). Because of that, I felt sometimes I tended to get overlooked. That was the start of me realizing I had to prove myself.”
With that in mind, she created a school club called “Step It Up” with the goal of improving old ideas and giving students a voice they didn’t have in other spaces. Under Robles’ leadership, the club led several community activities including a Rap It Up campaign in partnership with BET in 2007.
Underwhelmed by the mundane safe sex lectures in school, Kerish decided to spice things up a bit. After a lengthy conversation with the CEO of BET whose number she found on Google, she organized and launched the campaign at her high school with the help of sponsors including the Red Cross. Musicians, celebrities, and other lauded guests participated in the event aimed at promoting safe sex. The Rap It Up campaign was an overwhelming success and became an annual event until 2015. It was also expanded to the neighboring island of St Croix.
Needless to say, any doubts about Kerish were soon put to bed after that. Around the island, people noticed they were in the presence of someone special, a person capable of achieving great things.
However, gaining respect in the kitchen took more effort. Kerish walked into her first job at the age of 14 as a chef intern at the Marriott Resort and admits that she underestimated the lack of respect there was for women in the kitchen at the time. “It was a bit intimidating at the beginning because I wasn’t privy to how looked down upon women are in the kitchen. I’m grateful for the experience though because it developed my skills and I learned to come out of my shell as a person. I wanted to just keep improving,” she said.
Robles’ biggest period of self-improvement came when she moved to Atlanta to study. It was her first time away from home since her childhood and it came with several challenges. As an island girl used to greenery, being stuck in a concrete jungle initially was a bit jarring, especially without her close-knit family unit. Kerish’s inability to drive also made life a bit difficult. Arguably the biggest challenge though came her final year at the International Culinary Institute when she became pregnant. Despite her circumstances, Kerish was unstoppable. She excelled at school and was steadfast at becoming the best version of herself.
During her time in Atlanta, Robles won several culinary competitions and worked at events alongside celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay. She was also offered the opportunity to work as a caterer at the Tyler Perry Studios. However, home drums beat first for Kerish and she ultimately declined the offer to return home to St. Thomas.
Photo/Courtesy of Chef Kerish Robles
Kerish Robles wanted to use her education and her talents to improve the culinary tourism in St Thomas. After working as a Certified Career and Technical Education Educator at the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas for seven and a half years, instructing in Culinary Arts, Hospitality and Tourism, Business, and Family and Consumer Science, she was hired to create the University of the Virgin Islands’ first culinary arts program.
The program is set to launch in the spring of 2022 and Kerish has been chosen to design the program from the ground up as well as serve as the executive chef in the soon-to-be on-campus restaurant. She said, “It has always been a dream of mine to produce a program that allows for workforce development and showcases the fact that we have more potential than we know in the culinary world.”
Improving culinary tourism in her hometown is a recipe for economic growth and this could be Kerisha Robles’ greatest triumph yet.