Student Spotlight: Raquel Black
Major: Culinary Arts
Raquel Black’s mother always wanted to open a restaurant but never did.
Now Black, a culinary student at College of DuPage, has accomplished her mother’s dream. She is the owner of Caribbean Corner in downtown Downers Grove that specializes in Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican cuisine.
“This restaurant has been a mission for me in honor of my mom,” she said. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but I grew up in a family that loved to cook, from my grandmother to my mother. I used to peel garlic, and I fried my first chicken when I was 12 and a half, following every step that I saw my mom do. It’s always been so enjoyable.”
Cooking wasn’t Black’s first career, however. Growing up in the Dominican Republic and Miami, she started working as a receptionist with a health insurance company in Miami. Within a year, she was a supervisor. Within two years, she relocated to Colorado and helped open a branch of the company there.
“Working as an administrator in financial healthcare became my career, and I loved doing it,” she said. “I just ran with it, and eventually it led me to become manager of the billing department at Rush Copley Hospital.”
But cooking was always a part of her life. When the Food Network took off, she became addicted to the channel and began talking to her husband about returning to school.
“I was not thinking about a restaurant at that point,” she said. “I just thought it would be a fun thing to do.”
With her husband’s encouragement, Black began researching culinary schools. Unfortunately, the programs she found did not provide the flexibility that allowed her to work full time during the day and take classes at night. Then someone recommended College of DuPage, and she realized it was the perfect fit. Still, it wasn’t easy going back to school as an adult.
“I was 42, and it was a turning point. I was sitting and waiting to register with all these kids and I wondered how I could do this,” she said.
Black began pursuing a certificate in Culinary Arts. She was at College of DuPage when the Culinary & Hospitality Center opened and enjoyed the state-of-the-art facility. Personally, she bought a home and unfortunately lost her mother, which was difficult. But she also had the inspiration of opening a little place of her own.
“I watched TV and saw other people opening their own diners and making their dreams come true,” she said. “I began talking about it all the time, but so many things needed to fall into place first.”
A close friend drove by the storefront in Downers Grove and saw the “for lease” sign. Black called, and soon she and her husband were writing a business plan to present for a loan. She understood the restaurant industry can be volatile and was prepared for the bank to turn them down.
Within one week, the bank approved her request.
“That’s when it really hit me: ‘Should I do it or not do it?’” Black said. “I can fantasize all I want about opening a restaurant, but when it became a reality for me to make that decision, it was scary.”
Black decided to take the chance and quit her job. Caribbean Corner opened for lunch on Sept. 26, 2014. She started with homemade sandwiches, soups and sides but then added dinner options due to demand.
“It’s not 100 percent traditional, as I’ve put my own unique twist on some dishes,” she said. “They are very flavorful – you can taste the onions, peppers, cilantro and garlic. My favorite is Ropa Vieja, a Cuban dish which I offer at dinner. It’s braised flank steak that is simmered in tomatoes, white wine and seasonings, and it goes well with black beans and rice.”
Throughout the process, Black has incorporated what she learned at College of DuPage. For example, in one of Chef David Kramer’s courses, Black volunteered to be chef for a day, and she still remembers Kramer’s advice and lessons from that experience.
Black has employed other COD students, two of whom have since graduated. She is one class shy of finishing her certificate, and ironically enough it’s the required internship at a restaurant.
After operating as a small carry-out restaurant for two years, Black moved the restaurant around the corner to a place that now seats 35 inside and 20 outside on a patio. Business has nearly tripled since she first opened in 2014, and now she’s growing the catering side.
With repeat customers coming from as far away as LaGrange, Berwyn and Plainfield, Black is thrilled that she took advantage of the opportunity to open her own place.
“It feels wonderful,” she said. “I want an atmosphere where everyone is on a first-name basis and I know what they like. I want that rapport with customers because that’s what I like about a business where I’m a customer. I want them to feel at home with us.”
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