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Putting her soul into her food: Georgia native Loftlin has come north to turn her cooking skills loose in N.J. with entrepreneur Bayoh's latest venture

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Cassandra Loftlin, chef of the new restaurant Cornbread in Maplewood.
Cassandra Loftlin, chef of the new restaurant Cornbread in Maplewood. - ()

Cassandra Loftlin said she knew at the age of 9 that, one day, she would carry on the same Southern hospitality and soul food traditions her mother and grandmother had taught her growing up in Georgia.

She just didn’t know when or where.

“I was 33 years old when I went to culinary school, and it by far was one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever faced,” Loftlin said.

Nearly a decade later, Loftlin has been named executive chef and managing partner of Cornbread, a new fast-casual, “farm to soul” concept and restaurant in Maplewood.

She’s ready to rock.

“This is the first job I’ve had equity in, which is exciting for me,” Loftlin said. “It provides me with a greater sense of ownership and power to grow the business.”

Loftlin has come a long way.

Prior to 2009, she had been working in property management for multifamily housing units.

From IHOP to soul food

Adenah Bayoh, founder and CEO of Adenah Bayoh and Cos. — the parent corporation that owns IHOP franchises in Paterson, Irvington and Newark and a real estate development portfolio with more than $225 million in urban redevelopment projects — said she always was looking to disrupt the fast casual market.

“With Cornbread, I wanted to bring the integrity of the ingredients closer to their origins,” Bayoh said. “I don’t believe in freezing food. Cook food from its natural state as early as possible.

“Also, when we talk about sustainability, it is not just about preparing the food, but also sustaining the local community. We try to not only sustain the environment, but also the people who inhabit it.”

Bayoh therefore partnered with Elzadie “Zadie” Smith, founder, owner and executive director of Zadie’s Nurturing Den in Summit and Zadie’s of the Oranges in East Orange — both state-of-the-art early childhood centers and care facilities — to create Cornbread in Maplewood.

Raised in Tifton, Georgia, Smith, her husband and her three children resided in Decatur, Georgia, until her husband’s job transferred them to Summit.

Cassandra Loftlin, executive chef and managing partner of Cornbread, said Smith inspires most of Cornbread’s recipes.   

“Adenah and her have had a long-term friendship and have bonded over the way Zadie cooks,” Loftlin said. “It is different from the way I cook, but equally as authentic.”

While Smith enjoys cooking classic Southern soul food reminiscent of that served in the 1950s and 1960s, whatever the origin, Bayoh said, it has to be fresh.

“We are going to cook and consume food at Cornbread within the same day,” Bayoh said. “If food is not consumed that day, we will donate it to soup kitchens.”

“As I climbed up the ladder, I moved further and further away from dealing with people and, instead, mostly dealt with paperwork,” Loftlin said. “I quickly became unhappy with that path. So, I began to think, what is it that I really want to do? What makes me happy?”

Loftlin decided to return to her passion for cooking by enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta.

“When we first came to school, my instructor, Chef Jae Gruber, asked me what it was I wanted to do,” Loftlin said. “I said, ‘I want to be a caterer.’

“She said, ‘No. You are and will not be ready to take that leap. Go work for someone; learn from people; spend some time in an apprenticeship.’ ”

Loftlin therefore sought out a position at W Atlanta in the hotel’s banquet kitchen while attending Le Cordon Bleu.

“It actually made school a lot easier,” she said. “By the time we got to baking and pastries, I didn’t have to read the recipes because we were making French desserts at work all the time.”

Loftlin said she also was not cut any breaks in school or at work simply because she often was the odd woman out.

“I had to carry 50-pound bags of flour, too,” she said. “As long as you do your work and pull your weight, you can earn just as much respect as the men do.”

Loftlin soon worked her way up to become a sous chef at the Farmhouse at Serenbe, one of Atlanta’s original farm-to-table restaurants; a private chef for celebrities in news and radio; and an executive chef for a small franchise of high-end day care centers in the city.

“I always had adored working with families and helping them to eat well,” she said.

It was through her wide array of culinary experiences that she met Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time.”

“He told me that this emerging restaurant — this fresh, healthy, traditional yet fast-casual Southern soul food concept — would make a difference, especially being somewhere outside of the South,” Loftlin said. “He said it would be a huge attraction and something I may be interested in learning more about.”

Management style

Cassandra Loftlin, executive chef and managing partner of Cornbread in Maplewood, said women at work might not always be as assertive as men are.

And that does not work in a loud and busy kitchen.

“You have to be clear,” Loftlin said. “When I give a directive, it is not a suggestion. Being confident and clear in your leadership will take you far. Some male chefs may automatically get that respect — but make sure you earn it.

“Know who you are in the industry, what you’re about and what you represent. Have that depth of culinary knowledge and skills, so, when you are in an environment where you have to work harder and be better than, you can exude confidence when you do.”

For Loftlin, she said her strength does not come from volume or dominance.

“You need to make a collaborative effort to train and work with your staff,” she said. “One chef is no chef in my mind. You cannot learn or grow within a vacuum and you certainly can’t build a restaurant or a legacy that way, either.

“I simply communicate the vision that our investors have laid out and am very clear about our goals. Then, I make sure that staff members understand how their role contributes to that. I encourage and honor their feedback because they may see things from a different perspective.

“It is certainly not ‘my way or the highway’ — we all dedicate so many hours to working in a restaurant that we all need to feel like we belong.”

Loftlin said she realizes that is not the management style the general public has grown accustomed to on television.

“Angry chefs that yell and throw things — there is not a lot of room in the industry for that right now,” she said. “If someone in management is still operating that way, they may get hired because they can perform, but they won’t last.”

Finding balance

Cassandra Loftlin said she devotes 12 to 14 hours of each day to her work as executive chef and managing partner of Cornbread in Maplewood.

“Being a chef is a huge part of your life,” she said. “I start my morning in the restaurant and I end my night there, too.”

Loftlin said that, on most days, though, she is able to find two hours to read, walk or speak with her family before catching nearly five hours of sleep.

“My family is very important to me,” Loftlin said. “Those networks are especially important when you are stressed and the dishwasher broke and the truck was late.

“You need to have people in your life who understand what and why it is you do what you do, so they can provide some encouragement and feedback.”

When she has more time, Loftlin said, she most enjoys cooking her grandmother’s recipe for slow-braised short ribs with black-eyed peas, butter beans, savory cornbread and sweet tea.

But these days, Loftlin said, working on the restaurant from concept to reality is the entirety of her life right now.

“Once this all settles, perhaps, starting a family will be next on my list,” she said.

Chefs helping chefs

Cassandra Loftlin said she made a concerted effort to join organizations and reach out to other chefs in New Jersey after having realized her challenge of not being a state native. 

New Jersey gave her a warm welcome.

“Chefs have been particularly amazing in sharing their vendors and suppliers,” Loftlin said.

Loftlin said she also has found it useful, while working within “the good ol’ boys’ network of chefs,” to be a part of SheChef, a professional networking and educational organization for women food entrepreneurs, aspiring and seasoned chefs and other professionals working in the food and beverage industry.

“Having a network of women I can call for advice really has propelled my career forward,” Loftlin said. “They helped me make that next move and we all keep each other informed of future opportunities in the industry.”

Per his advice, Loftlin contacted Adenah Bayoh, founder and CEO of Adenah Bayoh and Cos. — the parent corporation and owner of IHOP franchises in Paterson, Irvington and Newark and a real estate development portfolio with more than $225 million in urban redevelopment projects —to learn more about her new establishment.

“I had lived in Atlanta for 15 years and had grown up in Augusta, Georgia,” Loftlin said. “I had landed at Newark Airport before, but had never actually explored, let alone thought about northern New Jersey as a place to live and work.”

Bayoh had a different idea. After hearing about Loftlin’s background and establishing a connection, Bayoh decided to bring her aboard the project.

“So, I packed up and moved to West Orange,” Loftlin said.

Loftlin is currently on site training staff prior to Cornbread’s grand opening in September.

“There is this heightened appreciation, mindfulness and respect for food and the cultures from which it comes and the people that produce it,” Loftlin said. “It is about honoring those traditions in transparent ways.”

Cornbread will fuse early American soul food cuisine with West African and Caribbean flavor influences, using locally sourced ingredients from nearby farms.

“A typical day at Cornbread thus far is spent coordinating with local farms and food producers to support the culinary vision of the restaurant, all the while ensuring that food is expertly prepared by our local workforce,” Loftlin said.

Amid constant conversation concerning the culinary industry’s lack of back-of-house workers, Loftlin said, chefs need to step up their game.

“I only had three or four people apply to be cooks at Cornbread, but when I looked through the applications, I actually saw people applying for dishwashing positions who had backgrounds in cooking,” she said. “I said to them, ‘I see you have some skills and qualifications that I am interested in, and I can train you to become a cook.’

“That is how we found our staff. We reached out, built people up and showed them a path into the industry.”

Loftlin said Cornbread will employ between 20 and 30 people total while serving entrees that cost around $15, including fried and baked chicken, catfish, turkey wings, ribs, mac and cheese, candied yams, collard greens and, of course, cornbread.

“One of the things that people love about soul food is the cornbread,” Loftlin said. “Ours is a unique blend between the savory flavors of the South and a sweeter, fluffier, corn cake-type version that people in the North tend to enjoy more.”

Regardless of what she’s cooking in the kitchen, Loftlin said the purpose of any meal she creates is to encourage people to spend time together and dialogue.

“It is very important that I am remembered for bringing families together to dine, commune and celebrate over good food and conversation,” she said.

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