I like to think of myself as creative; but I’m never trying to recreate anything. As a chef, all I really want is for people to eat my food and say, “Wow, that was really good and thoughtful.” That’s the way I’ve always thought about it, as a primarily self-taught cook.
A lot of what I do is rooted in the classics. I remember watching the show Great Chefs Great Cities when I was about 7 or 8 years old, growing up in Broward County, Florida. I would rush home from school to watch it on a dinky little TV in the kitchen, sitting there, eating cereal and getting so excited. My friends would be out in treehouses or riding around the neighborhood on their bicycles. I would only meet them after the show was over. I was the kid known for taking hot dogs, marinating them in teriyaki sauce, then rolling them in mustard, breading them in panko, deep frying them, then sticking them on a piece of rye bread to eat.
It was obvious from even then that I liked cooking. It wasn’t something that came out of left field. By the time I got to high school, I was looking for an escape from real school, so I went to vocational school, and did some cooking there. Around that time, too, I started reading cookbooks, which became an obsession, and still is. I would try and learn everything that the best chefs were doing, then come up with my own style. In order to be creative, I think you need a base—to know as much as you can and build from there. I’ve absorbed everything from everywhere that I’ve worked, no matter what kind of restaurant. And I’ve worked in all kinds, from three star Michelin to Applebee’s and McDonald’s.
I don’t like to follow fads and I am very classic in what I do in my flavor profiles. But there’s always a twist to it. One thing I am known for is my “Mondays with Jesse” dinners at Recette. These dinners are the second Monday of each month where I pick a theme and design a 10-course menu around it. That’s when I really get to push the envelope, all while staying within the boundaries of good food. One of my recent menus, for example, was a tribute to the Beatles—I wrote a whole menu based off Beatles songs. “Mondays with Jesse” is like having a laboratory and being able to experiment with new techniques and try different ingredients. It’s always a great time to explore and gain inspiration for new dishes. But I do it without going crazy into the science or molecular worlds and I don’t use obscure ingredients. I’m not going to use goat testicles. I’m not going to use all chemicals. And I’m not going to blast liquid nitrogen and break a huge dome at the table for the theatrics.
I think that if I was just a chef working for a restaurant and I was only responsible for the food in the kitchen, my attitude would be a lot different. I feel the struggle of being a businessman and a chef. It’s like the left brain fighting the right brain. You have to find that happy medium, which is really funny for me to say because I just wrote a memoir where I examine how my whole life has been one extreme or another. So, I’m learning daily how to figure that out.
If you look at the history of cooking going back to Escoffier, Favre, Prunier, Careme, then to people like Paul Bocuse and Daniel Boulud—the one thing that I've learned from studying all of these people and working with food is that there are really no boundaries. There are no rules. There might be the conformity that culinary school teaches you. And then there's the propaganda from society and how things should be eaten. But there's always someone cutting the edge. Knowing that, I never say “That won't work.” It’s about saying, “How can we make that work?”