Sometimes, certain people have visions of what they will become not long after they come into the world. A St. Louis chef, photographer, food stylist, content producer and entrepreneur is one. The young creative started cooking at age six and eight years later launched his first company, JR’s Gourmet. Scrumptious food presentations played a significant role in his family’s Sundays, holidays and special occasions.
“Everyone grew up around food. It is a staple of life,” says Juwan Rice, founder of JR’s Gourmet. “Being able to take those staples of life and transform them and present them as something new has always been my biggest passion, my biggest go-to when it comes to food.
Born with a Vision
The vision of turning his passion for cooking into a business began bubbling up in Rice’s mind when he was a youngster helping out his Grandma Mumzie in the kitchen. How family and friends reacted to her culinary spreads inspired the pre-teen to get his first business cards. “When my grandma would set up the table and present the food in front of the family, everyone looking around would have a smile on their face,” Rice says.
It wasn’t long before JR’s Gourmet Desserts & Treats had orders coming in from family, friends and his mother’s co-workers. Rice made cupcakes, cookies, brownies and small treats that kept his culinary vision alive throughout his teens. “My mom’s employer, Washington University, was one of our biggest supporters. Any event they had they would always call to get some desserts,” says the young entrepreneur.
Now, the 20-year-old owner of JR’s Gourmet is building on his company’s reputation for presenting high-quality private dinners full of flavor and finesse. Rice’s mother, Annetta Thomas, always encouraged him to pursue his passion for cooking. “Growing up, my mom always showed me that there are no boundaries. The only boundaries you have are the ones you set for yourself,” he says. “I started JR’s Gourmet at 14. Having all the support from family and friends definitely encouraged me to keep going and broaden my horizons.”
Plating with Passion
Food writers, reviewers and other culinary experts in St. Louis have already taken notice of Chef Rice and his creative applications in the kitchen. Feast Magazine named him one of their Rising Stars last year for his talent, grit, determination and leadership during the worst of times for the food industry.
Sauce Magazine included Rice on its 2021 list of Ones to Watch. He gained national attention when he competed on “Guy’s Grocery Games” last September. “I came in second, but I proudly say I lost to a now great friend of mine. She is an incredible chef from Tampa, Florida. We’re actually doing some collaborative things as well,” Rice says.
In that Food Network competition, the St. Louis native lost to chef Jada Vidal. He did better at the Show Me Series in August. Rice won Show Me Burger, becoming one of eleven Missourians to compete at the World Food Championships in Dallas (2021 WFC — ShowMeSeriesMo).
“It’s not just good exposure for me. It is also exposure for kids that grew up in a neighborhood like I did, which wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood. You can be on national TV coming from the same place I came from in St. Louis,” says Rice.
JR’s Gourmet gave visitors to Winterfest in downtown St. Louis a taste of what the private dining and catering company provides for clients. Rice prefers intimate settings, such as the homes of some professional athletes and other celebrities who appreciate the artistry he creates with ingredients from primarily local food vendors.
“Essentially, we come into the guest or host’s home and provide the actual experience there. We’ll set up the tableware and all the custom plateware. Everything is customized to the client’s needs,” says Rice. The chef describes his culinary approach as experimental cuisine. “I’m always experimenting with new food items, new presentations and new plateware. I’m always experimenting in the kitchen to present something new and different.”
Rice and his team prepare dinners for as few as two people and as many as 200 or more. Consistent quality matters to the culinary entrepreneur. “Typically, when people do large-scale events, the quality is decreased. We’ve been strong on keeping the quality there no matter how many guests we’re doing, whether it is 60 or 200 people,” he says.
Stunning presentations also became a priority for Rice early in his life. So much so, he taught himself photography to present his vision of exceptional, experimental cooking. One of his standout dishes is crab-stuffed lobster with fettuccini and white wine sauce. The chef also gets raves for his filet mignon with lobster tail, garlic parmesan mash and lemon pepper béchamel, birria lamb tacos with consommé, and reconstructed s’mores with graham cracker cake, marshmallow fluff and chocolate orange liqueur sauce.
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Photos of Rice’s creations attracted interest from other chefs and food purveyors. He took all of the photographs on his website and social media platforms. JAR Photography and food styling soon became part of the young businessman’s portfolio.
“I’ve helped quite a few smaller businesses and chefs get their marketing and photography game to where mine is. Over the years, I’ve grown quite an eye for photography and styling, which is quite hard for some chefs,” Rice says.
Sharing Signature Spices
In December, the owner of JR’s Gourmet expanded his culinary vision to include a spice and sauce company called J Rice Spice. “Over the years, we’ve grown so many supporters in different parts of the world. We wanted a product where they could take what they see on Instagram or social media and put those flavors into their homes.”
The J Rice Spice blends come in individual jars or combo packages, ranging in price from $11.99 to $75. Home cooks can use the Chef’s Blend as an all-purpose seasoning with cracked black pepper and a touch of garlic. The Flair Blend spices up meals by adding a Cajun kick. Rub ‘N Smoke adds a barbecue taste to meats and fish. The Pro Sausage Blend is for spicing up sausages made from meats, poultry or seafood. The colorful JR Spice collection will soon be available on some store shelves in the St. Louis area. JR Gourmet Sauces will join Rice’s product lineup in the near future.
Chef Rice launched his spice company with a charitable component to his entrepreneurial vision. He wants to encourage high school and college students to cook more by donating seasoning blends to them. It is not the first time the catering company’s owner has focused his attention on helping others.
Collaborating for a Cause
The up-and-coming private chef began 2020 working at Bait, recognized as one of the best restaurants in St. Louis. Rice started there right out of high school and was the restaurant’s executive sous chef when the pandemic struck. He lost his job and transferred his talents to kicking off a crowd-funded nonprofit called Feeding the Frontline. “We were laid off due to COVID, so I wanted to do something to support people working 24 hours out of the day, which was health care workers,” Rice explains.
The chef’s church, his mom, local businesses and two of his South Technical Institute teachers, Melissa Maness and David Bass, helped the nonprofit provide free meals. Feed the Frontline delivered home-cooked meals to nursing homes and other places where health care workers were on duty for long hours trying to save lives.
“The nurses were essentially locked into the facilities. They couldn’t leave or see their families because of the high risk of the patients they were taking care of. We provided more than 7,000 meals over a couple of weeks,” says Rice.
Reviving Feeding the Frontline to help teachers struggling with inadequate pay and other challenges is next on Rice’s list of community efforts to uplift and encourage others. In the meantime, he also inspires novice cooks with classes, meal guides and a foodie’s blog.
The entrepreneur’s vision for the future includes expanding his brand nationally and globally, opening a commercial kitchen and artists’ space, and eventually, his own brick-and-mortar place. “I’ve watched from the outside to see what steps I need to take to make it successful. There’s a lot more to it than just opening a restaurant,” says Rice. “There are a lot of financial things we have to go through. I definitely think that will come in the next couple of years.”
His advice for anyone interested in a culinary career: do your research and expand your vision. “Definitely, look outside of the box. When people think of being a chef, they’re thinking of working in a hotel or a franchise, but there are more things outside of that,” he advises. “I’m a chef, but I also run a business. I do public speaking and consulting for restaurants, so there’s a lot more than being a cook in a restaurant.”
Chef Rice feels strongly about people choosing their paths and pursuing their passions. A quote he put on his webpage speaks to his belief. “I believe that kids should pursue their dreams at an early age, but they can’t do it on their own…Parents have to have faith to push and encourage their kids to pursue their goals and aspirations.”
That is precisely what Rice experienced growing up in St. Louis and receiving unconditional support from his mother, family and friends. “I just want more kids to understand that your circumstances and where you come from do not matter. If you put your mind to something, you can definitely pursue your dreams.”