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Seasoned Chef Brings New Flavor to Davis Café

by Christina Ritchie Rogers '03
Chef Kerwin Astudillo
Chef Kerwin Astudillo prepares Lomo Saltado, a popular Ecuadorian dish, using fresh meat and vegetables.

Kerwin Astudillo's resume as a chef is as rich and diverse as his collection of recipes. Now celebrating his first anniversary as manager of the Davis Café, over the last year he has drawn from his background working in top-tier New York City restaurants to revamp the existing menus and develop new ones showcasing different culinary cultures and techniques.

"The café has always had a lot of great options, but the idea of expanding the offerings to include different ethnic foods is a tremendous improvement and gives students a real pick-me-up," Pablo Zevallos '16 said.

The café, located centrally in the Alvarez College Union, is a popular student and staff destination for meals and snacks. While it continues to offer favorites from its deli, grill and pizza stations, under Astudillo's direction it now presents students with a rotating menu of unique, culturally diverse options in the front serving station, or the "corner," as it has come to be called.

Last spring, patrons enjoyed a traditional Mexican menu and over the summer folks sampled dishes from an Asian noodle bar. Recently students returned from fall break to find an Ecuadorian menu, one close to Astudillo's heart, as it includes many of his childhood favorites.

Ecuadorian menu

Astudillo grew up in the Amazon region of Ecuador, which draws culinary influence from both the coastal and mountainous regions of the country-each with their own unique traditions. The Ecuadorian corner features about a dozen dishes, with some from each region. Some of Astudillo's favorites include: ceviche, made with shrimp, lemon, tomato, onion and cilantro; a tabouleh salad made with quinoa, cucumber, tomato, cilantro and lemon; and seco de pollo, a slow-braised chicken and tomato dish that truly reminds him of home, he said.

Zevallos also is from the Amazon region of Ecuador, and is pleased to be able to share his culture with fellow students. "The new menu shows people that Hispanic culture is not monolithic," he said. "Seeing a table of people all eating authentic Ecuadorian food makes me so happy."

A culinary journey

Astudillo first learned how to cook at age 7, in his home kitchen with his mother.

"I was trying a lot of different things in the kitchen," he remembers, and it was there that he began to develop a love of cooking.

At age 19, he traveled to the United States and fell in love with New York City. He decided to stay and began working as a dishwasher in a pizza restaurant.

"That was the first time I had ever seen pizza," he said, and he was determined to learn everything he possibly could about the cooking stations, lines, ingredients and techniques.

And he was a quick student.

Within three months, Astudillo was cooking the pizzas. Within six months, he was on the line making ravioli and gnocchi from scratch. His supervisors appreciated Astudillo's fast, efficient work and his eagerness to learn, he said.

From his beginnings in the pizza kitchen, he went on to work as a sous chef in several upscale New York restaurants, and ultimately was recruited to work as chef at the Maritime Hotel. There he met another chef-also Ecuadorian-who later became his business partner on a new venture: They opened Fiamma, an award-winning Italian restaurant on Park Road in Charlotte.

"We were amateurs in business but not in food," Astudillo said, and the critics took note. In 2008, Zagat named Fiamma one of the top 10 restaurants in Charlotte.

"Kerwin epitomizes the American Dream, building a life and career in this country through hard work, education and dedication," said Mark Lewis, director of cash operations for Davidson College Dining.

Astudillo loved the restaurant scene, but the demanding schedule did not allow for enough time with his wife and children, he said, so he decided to leave Fiamma. He began working in Davidson's Vail Commons two years ago, and last year was offered the job of chef/manager for the Davis Café.

New beginnings, new menus

Ecuadorian corner
The Ecuadorian corner is ready for lunch.

"Kerwin was chosen for his position as Davis Café chef/manager for many reasons, but what made him stand out from the other candidates for the position was his experience and wealth of culinary knowledge," Lewis said.

As manager, Astudillo has the freedom to make changes and do things his way, he said, and he has drawn from his complex culinary background to develop, and in many ways, redefine the café.

He replaced the re-heated frozen pizza with his own pizza recipe, including scratch-made dough and sauce and fresh toppings. He got rid of all canned beans and vegetables and makes healthy, hearty soups, including lentil, minestrone and pasta e fagioli, the way he learned while a sous chef at Soup restaurant in New York. He makes sure he always has vegetarian and seafood options, as well as classic comfort foods, all stemming from his passion for and commitment to preparing good food with simple, healthy ingredients.

"Behind all this effort is someone who is trained, someone who really knows and loves cooking," Astudillo said, and café patrons are noticing. The feedback on his menus has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

Already Astudillo is developing the next "corner" menu, which he says will be Mediterranean, and will debut after winter break.