Three Indiana State University alumni are finding their way into our hearts — whether in Terre Haute or on a different continent — by serving up hearty meals and decadent desserts.
As the saying goes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Three Indiana State University alumni are proving that adage extends beyond men to include women and children — whether in Terre Haute or on a different continent.
Layla Elamrani, MA ’09, is bringing a taste of America to her native Morocco, baking up confections as lovely as she is in her bakery, Lily Gourmet. A little closer to the Wabash River are Jeff and Kelly Ford, ’90 and ’91, of J. Ford’s Black Angus, who are doing their part to make Terre Haute a world-class city.
Dessert in Morocco is usually a bowl of fresh seasonal fruit — strawberries, bananas, oranges — or a few not-too-sweet cookies made from almond flour or dried fruit.
“Dessert for me is fruit. That’s all I know,” Elamrani said.
That is until she came to Indiana State for a master’s degree in school administration and leadership. While Elamrani returned to Morocco in 2010 after becoming homesick from nearly a decade of studying abroad — first in Finland, then France and the United States — America had definitely secured a place in her heart.
When asked what she misses most about the States, Elamrani said, “Every Thing. Seriously, everything. I had a blast when I was there. I met lots of people and made lots of friends. The professors that I worked with or had as teachers are just amazing people. I learned so many things.”
Upon returning to Morocco, Elamrani got a job teaching nursery and kindergarten students at the American School in Casablanca, which is about an hour commute from Rabat, where she lives. On her weekends off, she started baking cookies.
“One recipe led to another until I started making macarons. Of course, macarons are a very delicate cookie — it’s very hard to be successful at home,” Elamrani said. “I did not work out the first time, and so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to give it another shot.’ I think after the 10th time, I started to get the shape of the macaron. I don’t know why I got stubborn for making the macarons at home.”
Not to be confused with a coconut macaroon, macarons (pronounced like macaroni, minus the “i”) have a reputation for being fussy creations, highly susceptible to moisture and humidity.
“The macaron needs its own environment. You need to create that environment, and you have to adapt (all year). The environment changes in summer, winter,” Elamrani said. “You always have to figure out what is wrong with the macaron. It works for three, four weeks, and then the weather changes — maybe there is more humidity and then you have to change the whole recipe and environment and start over again. You always have to find answers.”
Keep in mind this was just a weekend hobby for Elamrani, something to pass the time. Her professional training is in education and sociology, not pastry.
The hobby also speaks to what makes her tick. “My personality is like this: I like challenges. I am always looking for something difficult, and I have to make it work,” she said. “I never thought that one day I would open a bakery.”
In addition to the science and math of it, baking encompasses all of her creative interests.
“I love painting and making things with my hands. Being a cake designer helps me express all those things in a cake. I love baking and being in a kitchen,” she said.
In August and after years of her friends and family encouraging her to open a bakery, Elamrani teamed up with her husband’s cousin, Nezha Aouad, and did just that.
Lily Gourmet’s storefront shop opened in late May. The feminine, yet modern, décor features walls of exposed brick and picture-frame detailing, both painted pink with black and white trim.
Elamrani had not even tasted a macaron before trying to make the perfect one. Now, she’s an expert, crafting stunning cookies in all flavors, including ones as homage to her Moroccan culture — mint and orange.
Sweet mint tea is served both at meals and throughout the day, often as a drink of hospitality. Orange trees — both decorative and for eating — pepper the North African country’s landscape and infuse the air with citrus.
“A very good macaron needs very good quality of the products, so like the almond flour needs to be very fresh and dry,” Elamrani said. “The ganache we put inside, we use a very good chocolate. That makes a very good difference for the macaron.”
In addition to macarons, Lily Gourmet specializes in figural layer cakes, cheesecakes, cupcakes and cake pops, all of which are American desserts she’s introducing to Rabat — with a Moroccan twist, of course.
“I know if a Moroccan tries a traditional American birthday cake, they’re not going to be a big fan of it, because they use lots, lots, lots of butter in it. So we tried to change our recipe a little bit to have it be a litt
le bit softer, (closer to) the Moroccan tastes,” she said.
And if the challenge of running your own business wasn’t enough, Elamrani also had to train her staff how to make these nouveau goodies.
“They were very interested. It was something new for them,” she said. “They loved the decorations, and they were always amazed when we came up with a new theme. They were all excited and taking pictures at the end when the cake was done.”
Elamrani was reminded of her Indiana State roots in May, when the women’s soccer team visited Morocco. Three players were celebrating birthdays, so Elamrani designed a figural cake just for them — lemon-flavored cake on the bottom, shaped and colored like grass and a soccer-ball-shaped top layer of raspberry, all wrapped in a fondant scarf printed with the university’s logo and each player’s name.
“Go ISU, right? Go Blue, go Big Blue!” Elamrani said.
‘More than a great steak’
After seven years of running one of Terre Haute’s premier restaurants, Jeff and Kelly Ford just wrapped up a seamless remodel of J. Ford’s Black Angus, 502 South 3rd St.
It was time for a reinvestment, the couple said, as equipment needed replacing and it was a chance to correct some problems in the 1960’s-era building that they didn’t the first time around.
In the bar, for example, they went down to the cinderblock walls and replaced the plumbing and electrical work. The result? More room for a wider selection of beers, scotches, bourbons and other spirits.
All the work and equipment was purchased locally — B&B Food Distributors, Superior Kitchen and Bath, Osborn’s Georgia Carpet, Carpet One, Ace Blind and Drapery Service. Even the butcher-block tables are crafted from Indiana hardwoods and built by Indiana artisans.
“We look for local support, so we want to make sure when it’s our time to support local businesses, we do,” Jeff said.
Their commitment isn’t just economic; it’s also civic. Kelly volunteers with the United Way, and Jeff is on a few local boards and commissions.
Aesthetically, the restaurant is brighter, warmer and more comfortable. A bench along the wall in the bar is filled with throw pillows and beckons you and your friends to enjoy a few drinks and a casual meal.
Gone are the white tablecloths, and there’s no dress code. Make no mistake, though: J. Ford’s is still upscale dining. They just prefer to avoid the stuffiness of a typical fine dining establishment.
A new bar menu offers the option of filling up for less than $20, Jeff said. And while they love sharing special occasions, such as anniversaries and birthdays, with their customers, Jeff and Kelly want to provide different ways for diners to use their restaurant.
“We have a lot more to offer than a great steak,” Kelly said.
They love seeing businessmen during the week and then with their wives on the weekends. “We’re always evolving. We certainly have our core menu, but we introduce different specials — anywhere from six to 10 a day,” Jeff said.
While J. Ford’s may be relaxed about their ambiance, they are anything but that about the quality of their food and service.
“We get a lot of people who will say, ‘That’s the best meal I’ve ever had.’ Or, ‘I haven’t had a meal like that since I was in X place or at this restaurant.’ Or, ‘I’m amazed I can get stuff this good in Terre Haute,’” Jeff said.
Part of that commitment is because good, locally owned restaurants are just as important to a successful community’s infrastructure as good schools and green spaces.
“We want to see Terre Haute succeed. We want to see Terre Haute grow. We want to do our part to help it happen,” Jeff said. “We want to bring a nice product to Terre Haute, but we want to bring a product that people who are from anywhere appreciate.”
“We don’t like to compare ourselves to anyone else, because we don’t think we’re like anyone else,” Kelly added.
When Jeff and Kelly set out to open their own restaurant, they drew on their decades of experience and made a list of what not to do.
Jeff, who was raised by foodies, started his culinary career at 17, when he was a fry cook for a catering company. From there, he had stints as a sous chef at Churchill Downs, executive chef at the elite Audubon Country Club in Louisville, Ky., and certified executive chef at the Country Club of Terre Haute.
Kelly had a similar start with a fast food job in high school, but went on to open Indiana State’s Generations Restaurant, work at the former Richard’s Townhouse and the catering division of Marriott Food Service and as a corporate server trainer for Mountain Jack’s restaurant chain.
Kelly, who now runs the front of the house operations at J. Ford’s, developed the “10 Commandments of Customer Service.”
2. “Treat ice tea drinkers like Opus One drinkers.”
7. “The value of the service must meet the quality of the steak.”
8. “Everyone in the building gets the blame for the actions of one person.”
Because of her uncompromising expectations, Kelly says she prefers to hire servers without prior restaurant experience. “I don’t want somebody else’s standards. I want my standards,” she said.
For instance, servers shouldn’t ask if you want a drink refill — just bring the pitcher and start pouring.
“We should keep bringing them until they say, ‘Stop.’ We do everything from (the customer’s) point of view. They have to tell us no. We’ll keep going,” she said.
The customer who comes in at 5 p.m. should have the same experience as someone who has a 9 p.m. reservation, she said.
“We don’t want them worrying about anything except the person sitting across from them,” Kelly said.
“And how good your food is,” she added.
As high as Jeff’s and Kelly’s standards are for their employees, they have similar expectations of themselves as employers. In the 80s when the Fords started their careers, restaurants were filled with workers who all ate too much, drank too much and smoked. Again, they set out to do things differently.
Jeff and Kelly regularly sponsor fitness challenges for their staff. Jeff has lost 40 pounds, and other employees are down 25-50 pounds, too. The front of the house’s staff is now smoke-free.
Jeff, who battled a rare form of Leukemia and miraculously recovered years ago, knows firsthand the value of good health. But working in the kitchen or as a server is a physically demanding job, one where you’re on your feet or standing next to a hot stove the entire shift.
Kelly, a former swim coach for the Wabash Valley Swim Club, also likes to have team-building excursions, including the one they went on to Cancun two years ago or a float trip or going canoeing. More simple efforts include monthly lunches or cheering on a co-worker at his baseball game with a cookout afterwards.
After all, happy employees make for happy customers.
“Our staff is phenomenal,” Jeff said.
“We can’t do what we do without them,” Kelly added.