Fueled only by a small Spanish-English dictionary and a big dream, Eduardo Polit packed his bags and got on a plane for the first time after culinary school to leave his hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador, for Europe in 1997.
Polit got his foot in the door at his first restaurant in Bath, England by showing up with a pre-written note asking for a job. For months, he washed dishes and scrubbed potatoes until he proved himself enough to earn a role as a kitchen helper, cutting and prepping parts of dishes to be cooked. A few years later, by the time he decided to leave for training in Switzerland, he was ready to begin running restaurants.
The decision to move to another continent taught Polit the importance of chasing after his dreams, a move that charted a path to Duke University last August to serve as the Freeman Center for Jewish Life Café chef manager.
“This work keeps me alive and wakes me up every morning,” Polit said. “It’s a dream come true.”
The addition of a chef – the first for the Freeman Center – coincides with other updates at the café. With a renovated kitchen space, menus have been revamped to include Mediterranean-inspired meals that change seasonally. The center also added a machine for espressos and made-to-order signature coffees, improving the experience at the Triangle’s only Kosher dining establishment with meals prepared under Rabbinical supervision.
The Ecuador-born chef, who worked on Duke’s campus for a dining vendor in 2014-2015, is fluent in four languages – Spanish, English, Italian and French – and brings a host of international influences to campus after stints at restaurants in Switzerland, England and New York City. Polit lived in New York City for 10 years and worked for three Michelin star restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park.
Before joining Duke last year, he worked as the executive chef at Veritas Collaborative in Durham.
“Eduardo has enough experience he could work anywhere in the world,” said Executive Chef Mark Turner, who oversees the operations at the Marketplace on East Campus, Trinity Café and Freeman Center. “To have a chef of his caliber is really a blessing for us.”
Each stop along Polit’s journey has influenced his style of cooking, and selecting fresh ingredients that take a dish to the next level is a specialty of his. Polit first learned to prioritize fresh ingredients from his family, who grew coffee, cocoa beans and made vinegar in Ecuador.
Polit and his father visited farms and local markets, where Polit learned how to spot the best and most ripe produce and vegetables, a skill that will help him leave his influence on the all-Kosher cuisine served at the Freeman Center, where he is the first manager trained in culinary arts to run the operation.
Spending time in French-speaking countries, Polit draws from a particularly French technique of cooking that influences his approach to any dish. One of his favorite meals to create is ceviche, a Latin American dish that can be adapted to include various types of fish.
In one of his first big meals at Duke, Polit crafted a dinner menu to host the Jewish Life at Duke Advisory Board, which met for the first time since 2019 in October. Hosting the meeting at the outside seating area of the Freeman Center, he served lamb kabobs, chicken lollipops, roasted red grouper, prime rib, honey and maple heirloom roasted carrots, chicken skewers, homemade apple pies, pumpkin and chocolate bread.
With a fall picnic theme, he prepared everything all Kosher and from scratch, including pickling vegetables and choosing dishes that wouldn’t go cold quickly, which made for a special occasion after not gathering in person for two years due to the pandemic.
“He knocked it out of the park to welcome them back to campus,” said Joyce Gordon, director for Jewish Life at Duke. “The attention to detail was amazing.”
Located on the first floor of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, the Freeman Center Café is open to everyone for lunch and dinner from noon to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and noon to 2 p.m. on Fridays.
For now, food at the Freeman Center Café is to-go, due to COVID-19 policies. But as Polit settles in, he looks forward to seeing diners enjoying the taste of his hard work in community with one another.
“There is a sound when you're in your restaurant that is beautiful,” he said. “It’s not loud; it’s a bit of a buzz where we can tell people are enjoying themselves. It’s very steady. When you work in a restaurant, you learn to notice that and crave that. That's what I want to see over here.”
Recipe for Fluke Ceviche
Mise en place (prepare all ingredients before combining)
2 cups of raw fluke cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 cup small diced green peppers
1/2 cup red onion, rondelles thinly sliced, rinsed in cold water and drained
1 tablespoon Jalapeno peppers, brunoised
1/2 cup Heirloom baby tomatoes, cut in halves
Fresh picked cilantro, washed and dried
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 fresh squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon aji amarillo (you can use tabasco)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons mustard
In a medium bowl marinate the fish with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and let it rest, then add half of the lime juice and let them soak for 10 minutes
sprinkle onions with salt and let them cure for 5 minutes
mixed all the ingredients and season.
Use long crispy fried green plantain boats for garnish and plantain chips for a side.
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