A Taste of Home
By Ashley Festa
Yvonne Junejo makes all her meals fresh everyday and many are made-to-order as customers visit the International Conference Center Café.
She takes requests, but she’s not a DJ. Today she has beef stew and an Italian sausage pasta dish prepared, but she can make whatever your taste buds desire.
The Grossman International Conference Center at the University of the Incarnate Word boasts a new eatery, the ICC Café, which opened in November. Yvonne Junejo feels at home in its kitchen.
She arrives at 8 a.m. to begin cooking meals for the day.
Just before 11 a.m., she sharpens her knife in preparation for the lunch hour. Minutes before the café opens, she chops fresh lettuce while tortillas and chicken heat up on the stove.
“I have a passion for what I do, and it comes out in my food,” Junejo said.
Junejo prepares chicken on the stove just minutes before she opens the ICC Café for lunch.
In the ICC, home to the university’s International Programs division, Junejo has the opportunity to experiment. Indian and Cuban foods have been featured on the menu, but she has discovered that Chinese, Mexican and Italian cuisine are the most popular. International foods are the norm, but she likes to be flexible.
“I like to see people happy,” she said. “I’m not just going to throw something on the plate and say ‘here, take it.’ I take too much pride in my food.”
Her knowledge of international cuisine and regional flavors stem from her own travels, having lived in and visited such places as Pakistan, France, Germany and Great Britain. Her travel experiences give her fresh perspectives that she incorporates into her cooking.
“In French cooking, they use a lot of sauces,” she said, calling herself a saucier. “I make good sauces.”
Students from all over the world visit the café every day, and it helps that UIW has students from more than 60 countries. Students from Turkey are some of her biggest customers, and she also regularly serves students from India and Japan.
The location is convenient for students living in the hillside dorm, but she believes some of the international students come because of the food selection.
“They like to have a traditional dish, and say ‘Oh, it’s just like Mom’s,’” Junejo said.
The most unusual dish she’s ever made was one she discovered while living in Florida and trading recipes with friends from Cuba and Puerto Rico. The dish is called ropa vieja, which is Spanish for “old clothes.” It’s a down home Cuban meal of shredded beef with spices.
Her weekly selection usually includes several international dishes, hot entrees, fresh vegetables, grab-and-go sandwiches and wraps made to order. There’s a menu board posted outside the café, and she describes the dishes to customers as they come up to the counter. She also offers to make a wrap or fresh salad if they prefer.
This Friday afternoon, she’s working alone in the café. She takes orders, cooks and serves food. Despite her many roles, she doesn’t forget the element of customer service. The last hungry visitor is greeted with the same joviality that greets the first. Junejo talks to her “regulars” as friends, and she knows each of their preferences.
Customers say Junejo makes the ICC Café feel homey and friendly.
And they know hers.
Her daily visitors know her not-so-secret wish to be on the Food Network one day. One of her regulars has already asked for her autograph.
Alanna Taylor, a study abroad coordinator for UIW, was the first customer on this day, and she’s also a regular. She keeps coming back “because it’s home cooked. It’s more like dinner.”
Customers seem to enjoy the atmosphere of the café. “It’s friendly, and it makes you feel like you’re ordering from a place that you know,” Taylor said.
Maria Quintanilla, a student who works in the Rosenberg SkyRoom, agrees. She describes the atmosphere as “kind of like a homey feel. She’s like a mom to us. She knows about our lives.”
As she orders a wrap, Junejo takes the time to ask her which ingredients she prefers. Junejo tells her about the different types of dressings and toppings she has available. Quintanilla watches as the wrap is prepared, and Junejo asks her whether there’s enough dressing. After filling a tortilla, she delicately rolls it around the chicken and cuts it in half. She makes sure it looks appetizing even in the to-go box.
“This is not a show. I cook the same thing at home,” Junejo said.
It’s visibly appreciated by all who frequent this café.