By Crystal Wong
Described as #BetterthanLot5 is G.E.M., a student-created eatery that provides “classic home-style recipes from around the world with a modern culinary twist.” For those missing the taste of a home-cooked comfort meal, G.E.M. offers customers an inviting dining atmosphere for the mere suggested donation of $5.
Jemuel Crawford, the mastermind behind this one-man show, was inspired by a Columbia University student who ran his own dorm room restaurant. Taking inspiration from that, Crawford decided to open his own eatery, although the exact location as of now is only disclosed to those who have booked a reservation.
The grand opening of G.E.M. took place during week 1 of spring quarter, and since then it has already served more than 10 hungry diners. Despite Crawford’s enthusiastic and supportive friends being his first few customers, the café is making quite the name for itself, as reservations are flooding his inbox. So far, the customers who have eaten there are second-to-third-year students who have been referred to through G.E.M.’s Facebook page.
When Crawford started getting reservations from students other than acquaintances and friends, he was extremely pleased. “A lot of people were referred, or saw the post on the UCI pages, and they told me that it would be interesting to give it a shot.”
The café is only open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and Crawford posts new menus each week on G.E.M.’s official Facebook page to help advertise and reach out to new customers. Each week is a different themed menu that ranges from classic “Italian Comfort” to something as eccentric as “A Study in Potato,” where that week’s themed dinners will incorporate potatoes in all the main entrées.
Crawford, a psychology and art double major with an emphasis in photography, likes to think of G.E.M. as an art project, social experiment and hobby all at once.
“Cooking is very immersive. I consider cooking as the greatest form of art because it gives the greatest visual, and you get the feelings, textures, the sight and smell all in one,” explained Crawford.
“This café all began because cooking was just something that I could do, and then I started thinking about how I could apply all this to what I’m learning in classes.”
Left to his own devices during much of his childhood, Crawford’s first interaction with the kitchen stove was when his hunger made him venture into the kitchen to experiment. After observing his mother cook eggs plenty of times, Crawford decided to try his own hand at it.
“I burned my first eggs at five years old. I will never forget how terrible that experience was,” deadpanned Crawford. “It was so horrendous that I vowed never to experience that again.”
From there, Crawford explained that it was the beginning of him wanting to cook good things, as he didn’t want to experience another recipe disaster.
Through self-teaching, watching cooking shows and engaging in many family cooking gatherings, Crawford’s culinary skills grew. However, Crawford notes that his main source of knowledge comes from a class he took his freshman year during winter quarter called “The Biology and Chemistry of Food and Cooking.” The class helped him understand the development of the flavors and textures of foods through biochemical transformations, which led Crawford to experiment with different tastes, recipe by recipe.
As Crawford continues to experiment with taking recipes and altering them to his own liking, he’s also looking to spread his name around by taking on local catering jobs. Crawford recently accepted a catering gig at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar this past spring break.
“I believe that there’s miles and miles left to travel, and I think that’s just cooking in general. You can’t really master cooking because it’s always evolving,” explained Crawford. “Have I reached the limit? No. Am I progressing? Yes, and that’s truly the only thing I care about.”
As Crawford begins to take containers of cheese ranging from ricotta to Italian-imported parmesan out of his refrigerator and onto his already spinach-covered countertop. “It’s a work in progress, and this,” said Crawford with a smile, gesturing to what is to become Friday’s themed dinner, “is just another way to practice and to have more motivation.”
Booking a reservation for one of G.E.M.’s weekly themed dinners should be done quickly, as there are only two spots open each Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
The café’s dining area is small. Once you step through the entrance, you’re met by dim fairy lights like something out of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There’s an elegant-looking glass centerpiece sitting in the middle of a black-tableclothed table. With smooth jazz calmly playing in the background, the atmosphere and setting makes you think that you’re dining in a romantic candlelit café in the City of Love.
On this night in particular, Crawford is cooking up a delicious lasagna impianto della dea with pasta, spinach, leeks, ricotta and mozzarella. Before that, though, comes the appetizer.
A plate of sliced baguette, coupled with an olive oil and red wine vinaigrette dipping sauce, sits on the table.
After the small appetizer comes the main entrée: a beautifully-plated slice of spinach and mozzarella lasagna. The sides are a perfect golden brown to ensure a slight crunch, while the middle is heavily coated with excess parmesan cheese flakes and specks of chopped leeks and a dash of ground black pepper. The first bite is divine, its creamy goodness heavenly on your palate.
Wrapping up the night is a classic dessert of sweet affogato. Crawford serves two scoops of creamy vanilla bean ice cream and skillfully pours steaming espresso made from a French press. The blend of velvety-smooth vanilla and the ever-so-slight bitterness of espresso melts in your mouth easily.
Before the night ended, Crawford mentioned how thankful he was for the support and positive reviews he’s received.
“The meaning behind G.E.M. actually has something to do with everything I’m working on right now. It relates back to all this,” said Crawford. He flashes a warm smile before saying, “Eventually I’ll tell, but as of now, it’s a secret.”