This June, the University of Maine hired former Navy Chef Robert Dumas as its new food science innovation coordinator, a position entailing both the management of multiple food science facilities across the university’s campus and the direction of its involvement with the greater-Maine food and business community. Dumas’ ascension to this new position is the latest achievement in a career that has taken him from commercial kitchens to Navy submarines, and from the White House Presidential Food Service to the grounds of Vermont’s New England Culinary Institute.
Born in Louisiana, Dumas began to develop his skill as a chef by working in different restaurants across the New Orleans area. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, he was motivated to join the Navy, and, in a decision that would have a huge impact on his career trajectory, chose to enlist as a submarine-mariner.
Dumas spent five years over three active deployments as a cook aboard the U.S.S Oklahoma City, a submarine based out of Norfolk, Virginia.
“I learned a lot about cooking onboard,” Dumas said. “The thing about a submarine is that you cannot bring much pre-made stuff – it takes up too much space. So everything comes onboard as bulk ingredients – big things of flour, shortening, sugar, etc. — and then you cook everything on the sub. We made everything from scratch, so it was pretty cool from a cook’s perspective.”
Living within the confines of a submarine influenced the ways in which Dumas developed interpersonal relationships with others, and taught him unique forms of mental strength.
“I think the ideas of determination, perseverance and grit, all come from being onboard a submarine,” he explained.
Dumas eventually became aware of a cooking opportunity at the White House Navy Mess — also known as the Presidential Food Service — and decided to throw his hat in the ring.
“When the opportunity to interview for a position at the White House came up, I was notified early on,” Dumas said. “And I was one of about 10 or 15 people interviewed from the East-Coast submarine community to be selected, which was pretty cool.”
Before starting as a member of the Presidential Food Service, Dumas was the subject of a thorough, and lengthy, personal background check, which significantly delayed his expected initiation.
“I had to wait another six months for the security clearance to finish up at the White House,” Dumas explained. “They talked to my neighbors, my school teachers, all the employers I had ever had. Everyone was wondering what I had gotten myself into.”
In early 2009, almost immediately after then Sen. Barack Obama was inaugurated as the nation’s 44th president, Dumas began his tenure at the White House. He would continue to work with the Presidential Food Service until just after Obama’s second inauguration in Jan. 2013, and fondly remembers the time he spent at the Executive Mansion and the many trips on which he accompanied President Obama across America and around the world.
“I did a lot of campaigning with him,” Dumas said. “He was traveling all over the Midwest, and as part of the Presidential food service team, we would provide hospitality for the President wherever he went. I got placed on some cool travel assignments, and got to do some really interesting stuff. Each year I would go to the United Nations General Assembly as part of the Presidential Team, and was in the room for some bilateral meetings. I had the chance to see foreign leaders and be a part of these big dinners. We were not always cooking. Sometimes if, for example, the President was sitting down for a working breakfast with the French President, we would do a beverage service during the middle of the meeting.”
Dumas’ position in the Navy Mess made him a part of the official White House Food Service, which is different from the Executive Mansion’s Resident Staff. When the First Family would host their annual Christmas parties, Dumas would often sign up to assist the Residence Staff’s Chefs with their preparation.
“It was a nice way to make some extra change, but a great opportunity to learn from some really talented chefs,” Dumas said. “That’s what it’s all about in the culinary world — you never stop.”
On President Obama’s personal tastes, Dumas was complimentary.
“He liked his lean meats and green vegetables. He was a good eater. Though he did enjoy occasional fruit pie and cheeseburgers,” Dumas said.
On the former First Lady Michelle Obama, Dumas shared the highest of praise. “She was a great person. I have a ton of respect for her agenda of bringing real food back into peoples’ diets. And that had a big impact on me. It really changed my outlook on food and my personal journey, and is partly why I’m here today,” Dumas said.
“As a younger person I really wanted to become a bigtime chef, and as I started to learn more about food in a different context, I became more interested in food systems and how food goes from seed to dinner. I credit the First Lady with introducing me to that more progressive world of food,” Dumas said.
Although he enjoyed working at the White House, Dumas was still a Navy service member, and was therefore expected to return to active duty at some point.
“I would have stayed at the White House, but because I was a sub-mariner, I was somewhat obligated to return to a submarine, since there are only a limited number of people with that skill set,” Dumas explained. “It’s an arduous job, and I was getting married and thinking about starting a family. When you are on a submarine, you are completely disconnected from the world. Leaving the Navy directly from the White House was a great way to enter the civilian workforce – it opens a lot of doors for someone.”
After retiring from the Presidential Food Service, Dumas was hired as a teacher by the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier, Vermont.
“I was excited to join that school, and to teach at the collegiate level,” Dumas said. “The hardest thing about leaving the Navy was that I always enjoyed teaching people and training people … What attracted me to NECI was that they have some prominence in what is known as ‘farm-to-table cooking,’ and the genesis of that came from a French form of cooking translated as ‘cuisine of the market’ – it was being taught at NECI by its French chefs. There is great agriculture coming out of Vermont, and a great culture around seasonal eating. Before modern distribution, people had no choice but to eat seasonally. The diet was very different. And as a chef, learning to cook within those constraints was a great challenge.”
Dumas’ interest in cooking farm-to-table food, and experimenting with seasonal cuisine, attracted him back to the state of Maine, where he had spent some time during an engineering overhaul of his submarine, and where his brother and sister-in-law, both UMaine graduates, were now living.
“Maine has a broader agricultural product than Vermont does, because of its coastline,” Dumas said. “We have everything that comes from the ocean, and it’s so much more than just lobster. It’s a fascinating place to be.”
After working for R.H. Foster Energy in Hampden for three years, Dumas noticed that a position was available at UMaine, and, after a few months went by, decided to apply for it himself.
As part of his new job, Dumas has been tasked with managing both the university’s commercial kitchen, which is used for cooking workshops and college courses, and its Dr. Matthew Highlands Pilot Plant, a large food science facility complete with a variety of culinary tools, including a lobster cooker, sausage maker, freeze dryer and a meat-smokehouse.
Professor Jason Bolton, who was involved in the hiring of Dumas, had himself once managed the pilot plant, and described to the Maine Campus some of its history.
“I managed the pilot plant as a graduate student for an internship around 2008 and worked with numerous food companies and assisted faculty with research,” Bolton said. “There was a previous food pilot plant in Holmes Hall but the current pilot plant was built around 2003. It was built as part of the Hitchner Hall expansion for the Food Science faculty.”
“The pilot plant is all about helping to bring Maine’s agricultural products to a larger market,” Dumas explained.
Through the resources at the pilot plant, food engineers are working to find innovative ways to process, package, and distribute food to reach the market. By finding new ways to be able to market food, the Maine agriculture and aquaculture industries will be able to grow.
Dumas is now in the process of advertising the pilot plant’s services to local Maine companies, and hopes to soon offer cooking workshops for students and members of the larger Orono community.
The pilot plant is located in Room 160 of Hitchner Hall, directly adjacent to the building’s commercial kitchen. More information can be found by visiting its website at: umaine.edu/foodandagriculture/pilotplant, or by contacting the School of Food and Agriculture at 207.581.2947