BelleJohns’ Soul Food has found success over the past few years, but things would be different if chef and owner Jewel Domino had believed what her doctors told her a year ago.
Last November, she was hit by a drunk driver, which resulted in her losing the bottom half of her left leg, Domino said. After many surgeries, she learned to manage her pain and walk with a prosthetic. And she did it in half the time the doctors said she would need.
“They told me a year to even consider getting back to work, and three years to heal properly, but in May, I went in and I started cooking,” Domino said. In just six months, she was running BelleJohns’ Soul Food out of Garden State Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen and incubator in Orange.
“I don’t have time for them to tell me what I can and cannot do,” Domino said.
This summer was Domino’s fourth selling her fresh, northern-style soul food at pop-ups and local farmers markets. Aside from challenges with her health, it was a good year. She was able to draw a salary for the first time and was asked back to the South Orange market well before the season ended.
At the market in Military Park, her signature fried fish sandwiches served with a side of potato or chicken macaroni salad were so popular that she had to set up a crowd control rope. “It’s just go-go-go-go — it’s non-stop,” Domino said, describing the downtown lunch rush.
She’s already planning to double the size of her operation and hopes to serve twice as much of the wild-caught whiting filets she dips in gluten-free cornmeal batter and fries to order. Another best-seller is her fish, shrimp and waffle fry combo, along with homemade sweet potato pie and her special Uptown Drink, a blend of lemonade and iced tea.
Healing quickly wasn’t easy for Domino. She said she stayed determined and focused on progress as she pushed through her pain to work in the kitchen.
“It’s all in your head — it’s up to you,” she said. “I forced myself and as time went by, I noticed it got better every day, little by little.”
Today, Domino said she is pain-free, no longer needs medication and is still well ahead of schedule. She’s catering and delivers wholesome home-style meals to busy families through her Chef Plate Service. She stays busy — BelleJohns’ Soul Food is already scheduled for summer pop-up events in Montclair and East Orange — and avoids excuses and negativity.
“I try my best to always, always be in a positive atmosphere, to be in a positive environment,” Domino said. “It makes me feel better. It helps me heal, helps me think better, move better, do better.”
On workdays, she’s up before the sun planning and shopping for the best ingredients she can find, such as fresh organic vegetables, pink Himalayan salt and antibiotic-free meat. Recent catering orders include holiday dessert trays along with comfort food classics like sweet cornbread and meatloaf that’s sauced and baked in a cast iron pan.
Domino wasn’t always a chef running her own business. After graduating from NJIT, she worked as an engineer on large industrial management and construction projects for multinational companies.
She can trace the beginning of her culinary career back to those early days. At university, she started bringing food to events hosted by the National Society of Black Engineers. Her fellow students asked her to bring more, and she usually obliged.
Family also plays an important role in her success. Domino has six brothers and two sisters.
“People give Irvington such a bad rap,” she said. “I’m proud of my family and where I grew up.” Her mother worked as a caterer for 25 years her father cooked 13 years in the military, both inspirations for her recipes.
The name BelleJohns’ Soul Food also reflects Domino’s relations. Belle is her young daughter and John is her son, a Marine serving in Okinawa who’s married with a child of his own.
Looking back, Domino said she forgives the man who got behind the wheel and caused her so much harm. Of course, she’d rather not have endured all the pain that followed her accident, but she said she doesn’t harbor resentment. “I don’t have any regrets,” she said.
“I am so blessed. I’m fine. I have family and friends that love me so much and the one above that loves me,” Domino said. “Worse things than this could have happened to me.”
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