Guide Chef Jeff Cooks: In the Kitchen with Americas Inspirational New Culinary Star

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All of these things kind of collide together and help shape the menu. Do you ever turn over the menu all at once? No, that would be impossible. Right now, we're starting to transition and do some more spring-like dishesslowly because it's not really spring here in Chicago, unfortunately. So this week we introduced three new dishes.

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We do one a day, basically. Because there's so much training that has to go into it. Literally, we have to come up with a dish.

We have to conceptualize it. We have to refine it. We have to get it to the point where we feel it's ready to serve to the customer. Once we get it to that point, we have to give it to Joe [Catterson], the wine director, so that he can pair an appropriate wine with it. He orders the wine.

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Once the wine arrives, then we have the green light to serve it to the guest. But first, we have to train the front of the house because, as you know, some of the food requires explanation; not just basic explanation. Everybody should know every element that's in the dish so they can explain it. But some cases, we can tell people the best way to eat it to get the maximum satisfaction out of it.

So then we have to actually have the front of the house team taste it so that they can get a better understanding of what we're trying to accomplish. So that takes a couple of days. And then, finally, we put it on the menu. Then it goes through a period of refining at that point as well. So it's a tremendous amount of work just to get one new dish on the menu. It takes us a couple of weeks to get an entirely new menu on.

Are you at the origin of every new dish, or how does that work? Primarily, how it works is that I will come up with an idea, and I'll write down some details, some notes on a notepad. I'll sketch out how I think it's going to look. And then, typically, I'll work very closing with my chef de cuisine, Jeff [Pikus], and he'll start working on the components of the dish.

Once he has all the components, we'll get together and create the dish in its entirety for the first time together.

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Then we'll just communicate and continue that with dialogue and refine it until we feel it's ready. So, really, my role now is more of kind of the idea generator and kind of the creative kind of supervisor. I have the initial vision for the dish. I have the initial creative concept. Then I'll try to delegate some of the actual cooking and technique to him or to one of the sous-chefs and then we will all get together and talk about the result and how we can refine the finished product. And how does the collaboration with Martin play a role in each new dish?

You can't just pick up any plate in your kitchen and serve that dish. The collaboration with Martin and I, basically, if I am visualizing a dish that I know is going to require a certain service piece that we don't currently have, then I'll go to him and say I need something that is going to support the function of this food. Like, it needs to stand vertically. Or it needs to help this dish or this bite of food remain very cold for a long period of time.

So then he attacks it from a functional design standpoint and comes up with a solution. Or I'll go to him and say look, I have this unique new food combination; let's try to create a service piece around it to support its esthetic or to make it interact with the guest or force some interaction in a certain way, make them eat with their hands or make them not eat with their hands at all or whatever it is.

That's kind of how our collaboration works. At times, he'll come to me with an idea.

He'll say, "I have an idea based on just the mechanics of eating. I've been thinking about table service and eating and I have this idea for a service piece. What kind of food do you want to put on it? What inspires a particular dish? The world. I think being creative, to me, is about being very aware of your surroundings and being very aware of what's going on in the world.

We can have an organic farmer from Michigan walk in the back door with a case of beautiful tomatoes, and that might inspire a dish. Or, I might be listening to a particular song, and hear a drastic tempo change, and that might generate an idea for a dish. Or be walking outside in the fall and walk on some dead leaves that crunch under my feet, and that might inspire a dish. I might be walking through an art gallery and see a particular texture or a particular form; that might inspire something. Martin might inspire something with the service that he comes to me with.

It's just endless. It just comes from everywhere. There's no real template or documented way that we come up with dishes. It's just random. It's spontaneous. It's great to hear you talk about farmers from Michigan for many people, it's either technology or local ingredients. They don't understand that if you don't start with a good product, you're not going to have a good dish at the end. In today's day and age, if you're a chef and you don't source high-quality ingredients, you're behind the times.

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Who doesn't do that now? Sure, when Alice Waters was doing that in the late '70s, it was revolutionary because people didn't do that then. But now, in , if you don't spend an enormous amount of your time trying to source quality ingredients from artisanal producers, it's just strange to me.

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I think everybody does that now. Or, at least, they should. Whether you're cooking like we cook or whether you're cooking like Paul Kahan at Blackbird. It's all about starting with the ingredients. There's a cluster of people doing really interesting and innovative things that are not taking place elsewhere around the country. How do you explain Chicago?