We sat down recently with Chris Jaeckle, the executive chef/owner of the new Venetian-inspired, Japanese-influenced Italian restaurant, All’onda. Sitting in front of the expansive window of the second-story dining room, he occasionally looks out onto the street below while discussing the merits of culinary education, his own professional culinary evolution, and the lessons he’s learned running his first restaurant. Ever the multitasking restaurateur, he graciously balances the needs of his staff with the interview, illustrating that, even though it seems like a quiet afternoon before dinner service, he’s got quite a lot on his plate.
Chefs Connection (CC): You went to a vocational culinary school during high school, followed by a four-year college program; I’m wondering how you felt that each program prepared you for your career?
“Frankly I don’t think culinary school is very realistic in general. That being said, I think that if you don’t have a degree and you choose to go to a culinary school that offers you a degree, I think it’s a good decision. I was in accelerated math and science; I didn’t have to take electives my senior year, so I chose vocational school because I had the opportunity, and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to do this.’
“In that school, I’d say the teacher had some realistic moments in regards to what the industry was like, but I think that was teacher-based, not necessarily school-based. I think I got a little more out of vocational school than most people probably would, because he took the time to be like, ‘This is how you do this’ and I don’t think he necessarily did that with everybody else. That being said, it’s just culinary school. It’s super unrealistic. It’s, you know, steam table food, and you have to be on time, so in that sense they teach you timeliness, but there’s nothing about it (unless you’re going into some sort of corporate dining scenario) that I think is realistic.
“And I think the same thing, frankly, for the majority of the Johnson & Wales [University] culinary classes. I do think that it was sort of redundant in that sense when I got to the the four year program. The group of students was a little more focused, a little better than the ones in the lower one. The basics, to me, I think are what I took from the school – I think I took culinary terminology and basic knife skills – and that put me ahead, but really what I think Johnson and Wales offered me was the administrative side of things.
“I learned a lot about administration because I think that they gear their students toward early management; I personally didn’t take that route because I decided I wanted to learn how to cook, and they wanted me to learn how to manage people, but I do think that Johnson & Wales did a good job teaching you how to be a manager. That being said, I think, culinarily, it doesn’t offer much more than culinary schools.”
CC: Do you feel that it gave you a leg up in opening your own place? Or was that more from the restaurants you worked at… or just your personality?
“I don’t necessarily think it gave me a leg up. I did become a sous chef at a very young age in NYC, which I think helped me. But frankly, I think I got there too soon. I got to Tabla when I was 25. This was three years after Tabla opened and it was a very serious restaurant – Floyd [Cardoz] was still very active in the kitchen. So, I think it was premature for me in terms of my culinary ability, but it did help me based on my maturity and my office skills and that sort of stuff. It took me a long time to, in my opinion, become a chef, because I recognize that I was lacking some of those things and I spent more time in some jobs trying to learn this, as opposed to doing the administrative stuff.
“To answer your question though, whether or not I think it helped me open the restaurant? Not really. I think that it takes a very special chef and mindset to understand that it’s not just about the cooking. I mean, they say that one in a thousand get a shot to be a chef, or one in five thousand – or, like the Danny Boomes or the Grant Achtazes or something, and I’ll never be one of them, frankly.
“But I think I look at it that way, you know: I still run a restaurant. And I think it takes a very rare person who has the charisma, or the culinary ability, or the intuition, to surround themselves with a group of people that can do all that stuff for them without them having to do it, or understand how to do it. And I don’t have that. But I do have the mentality and the sense (I’d like to think, anyway), that from this standpoint, to look at the numbers, to go up on the roof and try to fix the air conditioning, to fix the plumbing, to look at P&Ls! And I do think that my brain is scattered enough/reasonably intelligent enough to have a basic understanding of all those things. And that I think is what caused this to happen; I’m not convinced culinary school prepared me for that.”
CC: So, your restaurant’s been open for a few months, now. How do you see it evolving?
“You know, it’s more of a cultural evolution, I think, than anything else. I find that, in the beginning, the focus was really on the reviews, and it wasn’t really about being happy, and making the staff happy and enjoying work. It was more about, ‘OK! Is this right? Is this right? Why isn’t this right?’ The mentality is different. And I think that culturally, I’m trying to – I’m not saying I’m there yet – but I’m certainly trying to be nurturing in an environment that’s a little bit more relaxed, as well as high quality. And I’m trying to figure out ways to nurture that, and keep the staff happier and get them involved, and so I think that the transition is trying to understand the staff and appreciate what they’re good at and trying to use their skills to help us progress. And that’s all organic. It’s creative.
“The food – you know we just put pea greens on the menu, with peas and salted plum – like a sort of soffritos – and one of my cooks was like, ‘What about salted plum?’ And I’m like, ‘Hold on a second, this would be good with mushroom!’ and he made it and I was like, ‘This would be good with peas!’ – so those sort of things are how I’m trying to cause the restaurant to evolve. And our bar program – we just went through a bunch of cocktail changes and that sort of, ‘Hey guys, what do you think? What do you want to do?’ – I’m trying to nurture the creative force and the administrative force for my team. That’s really what I’m focused on trying to make this restaurant move toward.”
CC: Yeah! It’s six months in, you’re finding your footing. You’re still new.
“Yeah, we’re still new, but I also believe that it’s never getting easier. I mean, it can get different, but it should never get easier. Danny Meyer said to me once, ‘I don’t work any less than I did when I opened Union Square Cafe; I just work different.’ And that was one of those lines from Danny, that for some reason, I’ll never forget. You know, it’s just the truth. As long as you’re moving forward in your career, it should always be getting harder.
“Life should not be getting easier until you’re starting to discuss retiring. That’s my own personal feeling.”
CC: Challenges allow you an opportunity to grow.
“Both positive and negative challenges.”
CC: Exactly. So, how has the melding of elements from the complimentary cuisines that you’ve worked with allowed you to grow as a chef?
“This is an interesting question. I’d say ninety percent of what’s on the menu has come from me creatively at the moment. That’s why I’ve just been discussing trying to progress as a group. It’s caused me to really think about what’s going to be my potential imprint on this industry, you know, and that’s what I’ve spent a long time thinking about: what I could do that I’m passionate about, that I think is something fresh and interesting, to both the consumer and me. That is where I’m trying to move forward, in that sense, but I don’t really know if it’s changed me as a cook.
“As a professional, I think it’s changed me in a sense that I need to learn how to manage a team, and manage a dining room team, and manage an entire building – the stove’s broke, and the air conditioner’s broke, and the plumbing’s broke, and there’s a leak in the basement – so, I’m definitely growing as a manager, but as a cook, am I growing? I’m always looking at food in a different sense, and I think it’s an organic motion, but I don’t know that it’s both at this point. That make sense?”
CC: I think so. Are you able to look at things from a different perspective, now that you theoretically can do what you want because you have your own restaurant?
“Well, you can never do what you want. [Laughs] Let’s just be honest with each other.”
CC: [Laughs] Theoretically.
“That being said, my partners are absolutely wonderful and they really – I mean, they’re partners, so there are times where it’s difficult, but I think that as a whole, they have enough faith in me to allow me to do mostly what I want. I’m lucky… Oh, sorry, I’m sidetracked – what was the beginning of the question?”
CC: Oh, now I’ve lost it… Oh! Become more daring since you can theoretically do what you want.
“Oh, no, actually, I don’t believe in that. Really. Frankly I think that’s something I know I shouldn’t say I don’t believe in; it’s something that I struggle with a lot because, at the end of the day, it’s a business. We’re in a big city and there’s a lot of competition, so doing whatever I want doesn’t necessarily translate into something that people want to eat, and want to come back and eat again. And that’s something that, as my growth as a cook, or at least as a creator, I’m trying to still understand what people want, and that’s more important than anything I could possibly want to do. At the end of the day we’re in a business, and this is not about my ego, and that’s something that I’m still learning. There are lots of things I’m really excited about that just don’t sell. And you need to understand that, and recognize that, and take it off the menu.
“So, that, I think, is what I’m learning most now – trying to interpret and understand what people want, because if the restaurant’s not full, we don’t have a restaurant.”
CC: Why do you think food is important?
“Well, I mean, the obvious answer to this is you need it to live, to survive. That’s the obvious answer.
“I think that’s a very difficult question to answer in some sense. To me, I think it’s important because it’s one of the few things that has the ability to, when you taste something, bring you back to your childhood. And there’s a lot of things out there, that are sort of like, ‘My grandmom!’ or you know, I just think that very rarely can a piece of art do something like that to you and, in that sense, that’s important. The good thing that I think really makes it important, is that, I think it’s the only artistic format that actually has the capacity to touch our senses – texturally, smell, taste, hearing potentially – I think it has the capacity to touch all senses which I think is really the only art form that does that. Maybe if you’re deciding to take some acid, you might taste sounds and smell – you know, maybe?!”
CC: Nah, I don’t have any personal experience with that… [Laughs]
“…The claim that that has potential effects on your senses… [Laughs] but, I think that, realistically, in a normal state of mind, that’s the only one that has that capacity, so I think that that is something that’s important.
“On the opposite side of that, I think that people, Americans, in particular, have made it more important than it actually is. I think the spotlight on chefs and media and stardom has done very few positive things for our industry. That being said, I’m doing something for ABC news on Thursday. I understand that it’s part of we need to do, but I think that as an artistic form and the way it’s gone, I think that we’re not necessarily moving in the right direction.”
CC: Seguing into a video that I pulled up from Pedaling NYC from four years ago, you touched upon the artistic merits of food and how you felt it was leaning more toward comfort food. In the last four years, how do you feel that the artistry within fine dining has rebounded – or has it – since the economy has gotten better?
“I don’t actually think it’s rebounded. I think that you see the old guard staying busy, not going anywhere. Of course, you see a newcomer here and there, in and out: one a year, one every couple of years, maybe? But I just don’t think that the modern diner is interested in eating my way, and I also think that the media has a negativity on this. So I think that, in general, people – and I think we tried to touch on this here – I almost think we’re actually potentially too nice in terms of the quality of food we do, and the room, it’s really pretty – it just turned into something that ended up looking nicer than I think we were shooting for… does that make sense? For better, for worse, I think that’s to be determined, but I do think that we’re in that happy medium zone where we still do food that’s attractive and well executed, and done well at a reasonable price point, and I think that’s what people want.
“I don’t think that fine dining is something that – Wylie Dufresne is closing his restaurant, for whatever reason that may be. I think that a lot of that had to do with real estate – not so much his business, but still, I think that there are very few opportunities for that to work in this industry and I think that it’s a shame in one way, but I think it’s good for us in other ways, because it makes us work harder.”
Interview and photos by Elle Smith