Valerie Erwin '79 Returns to Princeton as Visiting Chef in Garden State Series
Introducing a taste of Low Country and Southern country cuisine to Princeton University dining halls, Chef Valerie Erwin ’79 visited Princeton University this spring as a guest of the Garden State Visiting Chef Series sponsored by Princeton Dining Services.
Erwin, owner and chef at Geechee Girl Rice Café in nearby Philadelphia, designed the menu serviced by Dining Services, selecting recipes prepared in her restaurant. Erwin and Dining Services staff provided students with a special dinner featuring flavorful dishes featuring specialties including Senegalese chicken yassa, red rice, vegetable gumbo, and sweet potato tostones topped with tomato relish.
Geechee Girl Rice Café takes its name from the descendants of slaves of the coastal South, known as Geechee, whose ancestors came from rice-rich West Africa. The restaurant pays homage to Georgian and South Carolinian cuisine of Erwin’s grandparents and parents. Erwin fondly recalls the food of her childhood, quipping that she and her four sisters “ate rice with everything except spaghetti.” Taught by her father, Erwin grew up loving to cook, and made time to do so as an undergrad at Princeton and after graduation, starting her culinary career at Philadelphia’s Frog Commissary.
Erwin opened Geechee Girl Rice Café in 2003, and has worked with all four of her sisters in operating the restaurant, now located in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. Together, the family has bonded over traditional family dishes, including Erwin’s aunt’s sour cream pound cake and red rice, both prepared and served in University dining halls.
Rice is naturally the staple ingredient of Erwin’s recipes, and she makes a special effort to use local and seasonal rice in her cooking – the heirloom Carolina Gold rice Erwin uses is made by Anson Mills, which grows its own grain organically. Geechee Girl also advocates for fresh and fair food, acquiring other ingredients from Lancaster Farms near Philadelphia.
As Erwin and Geechee Girl reach out to the Philadelphia community and beyond, serving traditional Geechee cuisine, this visit to Princeton gave students a delicious opportunity to expand their culinary tastes and experiences.