Rob Miller started college with the intention of becoming an engineer.

To help pay his college expenses, he got a job washing dishes at the famed Trellis Restaurant near Williamsburg, Va., and he’s been working in food service ever since.

He’s come a long ways since his days as a dishwasher, however. In fact, he gone to the other side of the world and back.

Miller, a chef employed by Aramark, the food service vendor at Eastern Kentucky University, was one of 26 chefs selected from Aramark’s global organization for its International Exchange Program in late October.

He was one of 13 chefs from the United States, plus 13 others from Europe, Canada and Mexico, who spent 10 days in Japan learning about Japanese cuisine.

On Wednesday afternoon, Miller set up several serving islands in Walnut Hall of the Keen Johnson to showcase the culinary arts he had learned in Japan.

In addition to other Aramark employees, Miller was assisted by two Japanese exchange students, Aya Funayama and Ayaka Sei, who dressed in kimonos and served as hostesses for the event.

One station featured a pagoda ice sculpture that Miller had carved. “I’ve been doing ice sculpture since I was 18 when I was taught by the executive chef at Churchill Downs,” he said.

While abroad, Miller learned how to make Japanese clam chowder, one of several dishes he was serving to invited guests Wednesday.

Because the university already had switched off its air conditioning for the season and Indian summer weather had raised temperatures in Walnut Hall, most guests took only sips of the tasty chowder, made in clear broth. The shells were included in the mix.

Skewers with chucks of beef or chicken stuffed with vegetables were very popular, however.

For the more daring, there were servings of sushi and sashimi, raw fish delicacies that are favorites in Japan.

Despite its name, Japanese shamu shamu is not whale meat. It is beef that is cooked as the diner observes.

Miller also served fish, shrimp and vegetables covered in tempura, a coating that he learned to make during his stay in Japan.

“I also learned how to bake rice in the Japanese style instead steaming it in the American style,” he said. “Baked rice is easier to eat with chop sticks,” Miller explained. He also learned how to produce homemade Japanese noodles.

Miller said he learned to eat with chop sticks years ago, but had not tried using them for a while until his visit to Japan. “It took me only about a day to relearn the skill,” he said.

When Madison County hosts a Japanese “sister county” delegation early next year, Miller will be preparing a Japanese-American banquet for them, he said.

While there won’t be a lot of Japanese items showing up in EKU’s Powell Building cafeteria, Miller has been adding bits of exotic flare to the cafeteria’s “Accents” station, he said. “I’ll also try to work some Japanese cuisine into banquets and other special events.”

His knowledge of Japanese culture and history, as well as his culinary skills, helped him be selected for Aramark’s International Exchange from the 1,600 applicants, he said. “I was recommended by my regional manager, but still had to complete a lengthily, 26-page application,” he said.

While in Japan, Miller’s cultural knowledge got him into a rock garden shrine that few westerners are allowed to visit. “I had to tell the gardener the significance of the shrine,” he said. A stream stocked with Japanese goldfish flows through the rock garden from a waterfall. “If one of the fish ever manages to swim up the waterfall, then according to ancient Japanese lore, it becomes a dragon,” he said.

“After the gardener learned that I understood the garden’s significance, he invited me in,” Miller said.

Miller introduced his Japanese hosts to such Kentucky dishes as catfish and coleslaw and Chicken Henry Clay. The dish named for the Great Compromiser is a chicken breast stuffed with boursin cheese, red onion and country ham. He also prepared country style green beans, corn pudding, bread pudding, mashed potatoes and lemon ice box pie.

During his time at the Trellis, Miller learned from its executive chef, Marcell DeSaulnier, who has gone on to fame as the “Burgermeister Chef” and the “Death by Chocolate Chef.”

Using what he learned from DeSaulinier, Miller got a job as assistant chef at Hasenour’s Restaurant in Louisville. He was quickly promoted to executive chef when his boss left for a teaching position at Sullivan University.

He had held a variety of jobs in Louisville and then Lexington before joining Aramark at EKU in 2000.

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