The chime of the lunch bell still echoes in the hall when the first frantic student hits the cafeteria door. Boys and girls alike are hot on his heels, all angling to get to the lunch line. Teachers and staff — typically respectful of “first-come, first-serve” — exert executive privilege and elbow their way to the front. All want to be sure they get their serving of today’s menu.
Like a scene from Oliver, the first child hands his tray to server Rita Madera and says eagerly, “Tikka, please.”
“With na’an or no?” Rita asks.
“Oh with, please. With!”
And so the monthly chicken tikka masala rush begins.
How did an Indian dish become the favorite food at a school founded by Scots-Irish Catholics?
Meet Peter Radjou.
Since 2012, Peter has been raising the bar and children’s palettes as Roanoke Catholic School chef. Beef lomein, baked rotini, stir fried pork — and of course the tikka — are examples of Peter’s daily menus. Even the challenging season of Lent, when many Catholic schools default to fish sticks and fries, finds Celtic students enjoying dill-crusted salmon, braised tilapia with lobster sauce, shrimp etouffee and shrimp creole over rice.
Though he has cooked in hotels and cruise ships all over the world, has opened restaurants in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and today owns with wife Sara the popular Taaza Restaurant in Grandin Village, Peter insists, “This is my best job ever. It was given to me by God. I have had more satisfaction here than anywhere else.”
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Until 2012, serving lunch to Catholic school kids was never in Peter’s career plans.
A culinary school graduate, Peter began his career working in hotels in his native India and the Republic of Maldives. From 1989 to 1992 he worked in the kitchens of Carnival cruise ships sailing through Caribbean islands and off the Mexican coast. In 1992 he married Sara, who dreamed of moving to the United States. Settling first in Manassas and then Maryland, Peter and a partner opened restaurants in College Park and Washington, D.C.
In 2002 Peter moved to Roanoke to start a contract operating Elephant Walk in the Tanglewood Holiday Inn. A year later, Sara and their two daughters, Cathy and Alice, joined him. In 2006 Peter decided to open his own Indian restaurant, Taaza, on Franklin Road. He asked Sara to manage it, much to her surprise.
“I’d been a kindergarten teacher in India, but when we moved to Roanoke I was working for NBC Bank and Suntrust,” she recalls with a laugh. “Then Peter one day says we’re going to open Taaza and I’m going to manage it. He says, ‘What you do at home you’re going to do there.’”
For a few years, the restaurant business was good for the Radjous. So much so they felt comfortable enrolling Cathy, then an 11th grader, and Alice, in 6th grade, in Roanoke Catholic. Friends at Our Lady of Nazareth had encouraged them for some time to do so.
“We didn’t like the way the public schools were going,” says Sara. “Only doing SOLs … and the friends’ circles … the dress code. But the main reason was we both had Catholic school for our education. We knew how Catholic education worked and we wanted our kids to have it.”
But the Great Recession, coupled with a troubling catering contract Peter had entered into with a local country club, conspired to make 2011-12, in Peter’s words, “the worst year of our lives.” His restaurants suffered heavy losses. He gave up control of the College Park and D.C. restaurants to his now former business partner.
“We wouldn’t wish our worst enemies to go through that,” says Sara.
Distraught over his failing businesses, Peter one day found himself at Our Lady of Nazareth, kneeling before the statue of Mary and praying the Rosary through tears streaming down his face. “Why is this happening?” he asked himself again and again.
He finished his Rosary, got into his car and picked up his cell phone to discover he’d missed a call from Roanoke Catholic. The voicemail was from Patrick Patterson, principal and head of school: “Mr. Radjou,” the message began, “I understand you’re in the food and beverage business. I’d like to talk to you about an opening we have here.”
Recounting the story, Sara is now the one to weep. “It was God’s plan that we do this.”
Not all in the family initially appreciated the news. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh no!’” says Alice, then a 7th grader. “‘Now there’s going to be someone there who is going to be looking over me, who will be talking to all my teachers about me.’ But once he started cooking, everyone loved him. It’s nice to have him here.”
The school feels the same. “We’d never enjoyed a consistently profitable cafeteria until Peter Radjou,” says Patterson. “His knowledge of service to customers, minimizing waste, and the dining industry in general has led to Roanoke Catholic having a fabulous cafeteria.”
More importantly, Patterson notes, the Radjous are a witness to faith. Devoted Our Lady of Nazareth parishioners, the Radjous each Christmas season prepare a holiday feast for homeless men, women and children served by The Rescue Mission. Every Tuesday, both Peter and Sara pray the Rosary in the St. Andrew’s Church chapel before filing into the sanctuary with all RCS students to attend school Mass. “We want our children to see our employees and support staff at Mass demonstrating their faith,” says Patterson.
Peter is also the first call for Roanoke Catholic catering or fundraising events: Book Fair dinners supporting the library; the school’s Donor Appreciation Reception last fall at Center in the Square; Lenten fish fries and St. Patrick’s Day Dinner for the Ancient Order of Hibernians; bitty basketball awards breakfast; Thanksgiving pie sale for the swim team; and on and on.
“As a parent and volunteer, there couldn’t be two more genuine, hard-working and kind people,” says Barbara Andes, who chairs the school’s Book Fair. “They are an asset to Roanoke and our school.”
The Radjous also host fundraising dinners at Taaza (which in January relocated to Grandin Village), devoting a portion of proceeds back to the school. And Peter is leading two weeks of culinary camps this summer for middle and high school students as part of RCS’ first-ever summer camp program.
Says Peter, “When I was at my lowest point, the school helped me, so I want to always give back to the school.”