By: Benjamin Koslowe and Yair Lichtman | Features  | 

YU Profiles: The Country, the Cafeteria and Cabey: The Man Behind the Salmon

Editor’s Note: The Commentator is pleased to reintroduce the “YU Profiles” column. The purpose of the column is to spotlight interesting Yeshiva University characters, from faculty to administrators to operations employees.

In the underground cafeteria of a small liberal arts college in northern Manhattan, hundreds of hungry students every day walk through a narrow turnstile, shedding decades of American history as they enter a realm fossilized in their grandparents’ generation. Pastels of faded yellow peel off the brick walls, furnished with hissing pipes whose steam mingles with the smell of teriyaki sauce. It is a simple place, as if ripped from an old legend or myth, briefly transporting those present out of a world saturated with screens and technology, and into a space whose dusty pillars have witnessed years of suppers scooped onto paper plates by stainless steel spoons. The low ceiling seems to trap words within the chamber whose dozens of homogeneous rectangular tables reek as much of student controversy as of the soup du jour.

It is 12:00 p.m. as Yeshiva Student descends into the bowels of Rubin Hall. Perspiration begins to lightly dot his palms and soak his flimsy cardboard tray, which he clutches with his left hand, while he grasps his racing heart with his right. Time seems to slow down as Yeshiva Student watches those ahead of him pass before the metallic ramparts that separate them from the fiery ovens within. The furnace’s mighty guardian swiftly dispatches faint-hearted newcomers and battle-hardened elders alike, as from the depths of his soul emerges a trumpeting refrain, equal parts sonorous and soothing: “Talk to me, kid.”

One day, these kids did.

We were greeted by a smile, warm as a generous helping of half chicken.

As we crossed the Furman Dining Hall to sit down with Carlton Cabey — known colloquially by his family name stitched in blue characters on the lapel of his double-breasted jacket — we were greeted by a smile, warm as a generous helping of half chicken (which, in a candid moment, Cabey revealed to be his favorite dinner option in the YU cafeteria). He extended a hand weathered by decades in the food services industry.

“Childhood was good,” explained Cabey. The oldest of five brothers, Cabey “grew up with a nice life” on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix, home once to famous Broadway pop star Alexander Hamilton and coral reefs abundant with tropical fish. With an appetite for something more, Cabey emigrated to the United States at the age of 26. He settled in New York City, where he began a decades-long career in the culinary field before joining the ranks of Yeshiva University, where the 64-year-old hangs the toque blanche that adorns his salt-and-pepper hair until this day. “I wanted to take it much easier,” laughed Cabey as he recalled his decision just over five years ago to retire as an assistant food services director for a senior living facility. “I’m still working hard!”

Serving food to students is the highlight of Cabey’s day. “Dealing with students, that’s very good,” figured Cabey, who ensures that hundreds of YU undergraduates and employees can enjoy lunch and dinner six days a week. Cabey shared how students regularly smile at him and say hello when they pass him on the streets or the subway. “I’m on the train,” related Cabey, “‘Hey Cabey, where you going?’ I’m up in the country, I’m walking to the mall, and guess who? ‘Hey, Cabey!’ Turn around, there’s one of the students. I was like, ‘What you doing up here?’” Cabey reflected, “It’s nice to see guys. It’s always nice.”

Familiar faces are a rare sight for Cabey in “the country,” though many of his patrons hear about the mythical weekend getaway on a regular basis. “Only two more days till the weekend,” Cabey is known to say to students on Wednesdays. On Fridays, Cabey’s dream becomes a sweet reality as he commutes south-west to the quiet rural village of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. “When I’m up there,” smiled Cabey, an avid fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, “I work around the house or the lawn. Summertime, I plant my garden and get my veggies and all of that stuff here.”

A culinary aficionado in his own right, Cabey appreciates the soft ambiance of an easy meal prepared by his own cooking. “I love my cooking,” boasted Cabey. “I’m a great cook, so I go to markets, I buy my own food, and I enjoy that. I love that.”

“Everybody loves salmon.”   —Cabey

In the YU cafeteria, Cabey rules with discipline gentle but firm, not unlike his famous salmon entrée. “You come up [to the counter],” reasoned Cabey, “you should know what you want. I mean, I can understand the new guys coming for the first time, and I’ll teach them … ‘this is a cup, this is a plate.’ You know, so we work with that.” Newcomers aside, though, Cabey expects for the line to keep moving. “If I’m gonna stay with you for five minutes,” Cabey explained, “the line gonna jam up. He behind you, he’s gonna get mad, just like, he might not be sure he’s getting mad, but he wants to eat.”

But Cabey also keeps the needs of students in mind. “Everybody loves salmon,” he declared. “They go crazy for it.”

His interests extend beyond the griddle, on which he prepares succulent hamburgers and delectable sausages. While he doesn’t watch TV or movies, he curates a fine taste in music. “I used to play trumpet, but now I just take it easy,” Cabey mused. “But I’m a jazz man.” Though it has been many years, Cabey fondly remembers his evenings performing the trumpet on stages shared by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine and other jazz legends.

These days, Cabey’s cultural encounters are confined to his daily commute on the A train from his home in Crown Heights to Washington Heights. Cabey regularly hobnobs with Jews across the spectrum, from black-hatted Chasidim to clean-shaven Jewish day school graduates. But there is still one Jew that Cabey has yet to meet. “There was a guy that used to come down to get food for him, lunch for him,” pondered Cabey. “The other president, well, he used to come around sometime. Um, Dr. Joel? But I never see this guy. If I ever see him now, what’s his name, Berman? Yeah, if I see him now, I wouldn’t even know who he is.”

Cabey professes a nuanced weltanschauung vis-à-vis YU’s philosophy of Torah Umadda. “The Jewish thing I got no problem with,” remarked Cabey as he chewed over the tantalizing balance between tradition and modernity. “Well, I mean, I know you guys do Torah, so you know, it is what it is. It is what it is.” Clearly inspired by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s notion of Torah im Derekh Eretz, Cabey also considers a sense of diligence and interpersonal respect among Yeshiva University’s educational goals. “Just keep doing, work hard,” offered Cabey as advice to YU undergraduates. “I know they’re stressed out at times, during finals or midterms, but that’s why you’re here, you know. And respect, as usual. I give them respect, I expect the same back from them. So it’s mutual.”

Though he feels close to YU, Cabey dreams of a quiet retirement beyond the ideological walls of the Washington Heights Modern Orthodox community. When asked about his plans for the future, he wistfully contemplated returning to his home in the Virgin Islands and living a good life. Considering a possible world in which he wins the lottery, Cabey added, “I love the sea. I would have me a nice yacht. That’s where I would spend a lot of time. In the ocean.”

But Cabey is also happy right where he is, as a beloved YU chef. “I’m livin’ rich,” beamed Cabey.


Photo Caption-1: Cabey enjoying the festivities at the annual Yom Ha’atzmaut Barbecue.
Photo Caption-2: Cabey adroitly apportioning a side of veggies onto a mean helping of salmon in the Furman Dining Hall.
Photo Credit: The Commentator