“It consumes my spare time, my reading, even my vacations,” observes Jason Avery the co-executive chef of New York’s Pera. The “it” to which refers is food. However his has not been a life-long love affair with what is now Avery’s self-described obsession. Throughout his formative years and most of his teens he had envisioned becoming an artist. “I was always drawing and painting, taking classes,” recalls the Croton-on-Hudson, NY native. “Of course I’m still painting every day, but now the pictures are on plates.”
Indeed, he was attracted to his profession by the artistic nature of cooking, which Avery discovered while working in a North Carolina restaurant after graduating from high school. He was hired as a dishwasher, but recognized the opportunity presented by an understaffed kitchen and grabbed it, first helping with prep and then moving on to making simple sauces. Within months Avery was running the kitchen. Moreover, he was hooked on the attendant creativity, excitement, pressure and teamwork, all of which motivate him to this day.
For the next two years, Avery pursued a journeyman’s culinary education, acquiring skills working various stations in restaurant and country club kitchens. In 1989, he enrolled in Johnson & Wales to take his career to the next level with the express goal of getting a job in New York City. Upon his 1991 graduation, Avery was recruited as a sous chef by the Righa Royal Hotel (now The London) in midtown Manhattan.
“If I had any doubts about wanting to be a chef in New York, they were dispelled a day or two after I started at the hotel. I was working a buffet at a reception and Kiss walked in – I was a huge Kiss fan. I thought this is fantastic, I’m cooking for Gene Simmons!”
He went on to further enlarge his gustatory repertoire under David Burke at the Park Avenue Café, where he developed a flair for captivating presentation. Two-and-a-half-years as chef de cuisine at the Intercontinental Hotel followed, an experience which enabled him to work for three months at the famed Carlton Restaurant at the Intercontinental Cannes, France property.
As opening executive sous chef for The Regent Wall Street and chef de cuisine of the hotel’s highly touted 55 Wall, Avery gained notoriety for his innovative use of locally grown produce and clever dishes. Witness appetizers inspired by famous New York neighborhoods plated atop miniature subway maps – “Coney Island” sported mini corn dogs, French fries and onion rings in diminutive beach pails.
Such work at the hotel’s highly touted 55 Wall restaurant, brought Avery to the attention of Burak Karaçam, who was looking for a chef that would complement the specialty meat skills of Turkish chef, Sezai Celibkas, already tapped for the restaurant. When Karaçam approached him, Avery was intrigued.
“One of the things I love about my profession is the never ending learning process and certainly partnering with a Turkish chef to run an Eastern Mediterranean kitchen was going to be just that. Through working in hotels I had worked with lots of different cuisine. I thought it would be interesting to concentrate on one, especially a new one for me.”
By November 2006, when Pera opened, it was no longer new for him. At Karacam’s direction, Avery took an extended trip to Turkey, traveling throughout the country, haunting professional, as well as home, kitchens to absorb the techniques and traditions of its diverse regional cookery.
It is knowledge Avery relishes sharing with diners at Pera, often stopping by tables to explain with infectious enthusiasm how a dish is made or the rituals associated with its presentation. He believes people appreciate learning about the food’s heritage, because it puts what they’re eating in context, engaging them in the learning experience Avery so cherishes.
These days, Avery is learning a lot about another cuisine and culture, courtesy of his German bride. His goal is to become almost as conversant in Germanic culinary customs as he is in Turkish.