“Hey! Yo! They got an order of wild rice coming up!”
“Hey! Tell Ivan to bring us our trash can.”
“Yo! Give me a pheasant count.”
“We got seven veal.”
“We got two. You want a venison count, too?”
Dishes are sliding across countertops. Carrot shavings are sailing off a cutting board and onto the floor. Shrimp are sizzling in skillets. Ice cream is being spit out of a big metal contraption into a big metal bowl. A line of chefs is cutting and dicing and sauteing and yelling and grunting.
The garbage can here is a work of art. Hollandaise sauce has been dribbled atop slices of carrots and onions. A batch of mussel shells and a bottle of Grand Marnier lie comfortably together in a big Glad Bag.
Amid the line of chefs is a tall, unassuming man in his early 30s with a thin, drooping mustache, scuffed white gym shoes, and black-and-white checked parts. As he shakes his skillet, he sings Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” in a rough-edged rock ‘n’ roller’s voice. The frizzy-haired concierge at the front desk calls him “our funky chef” because he’s so “mellow and down-to-earth.” And, if you believe in awards, he just might be the best chef in America.
For the past couple of years, Jeff Jackson has been working as the executive chef at La Tour in the Park Hyatt on Michigan Avenue. From the sedate decor of the restaurant and the artistic design of its meals, which look more like lithographs than linguini, you might expect a kitchen where only French was spoken–and in calm, measured tones. Nope. It’s mayhem back here. Occasionally a little Spanish is spoken, as in “Senor, agua!” But mostly the workers take their cues from the mellow Jackson, whose roots lie in that sophisticated metropolis, Oklahoma City.
“I had to get out of Oklahoma, big-time,” said Jackson. “The natural progression is dishwasher, pot washer, vegetable peeler. Then you get to do vegetables, or maybe be a broiler man. I think the first time I knew I wanted to be a chef was when I was working with this guy who was the chef of a steak house. And I use the term ‘chef’ loosely. He showed me they had this god-awful soup called steak soup. What they’d do was take all the scraps of the prime rib from the day before, and they’d take beef base and water and make a roux, and make this globby soup with scraps of meat in there and frozen vegetables and shit like that. And the people there loved it. And when this guy showed me how to make the roux, I think that’s when a little switch went on inside my head. I knew there was something more to cooking than throwing something on a fire, turning it over, and pulling it out.”
So Jackson headed out to Hyde Park, New York, learning cooking skills at the Culinary Institute of America. Then he came to Chicago, where he worked at Jovan, at Le Francais under chef Jean Banchet, and at the short-lived Club La Mer. Jackson has recently become famous for nabbing the prestigious Bocuse d’Or (named after the French chef Paul Bocuse), the first-place award in a national cooking contest judged by chefs and food critics, including Craig Claiborne. In January, Jackson will represent the United States in the international contest.
“They give you two things to cook,” said Jackson. “In this year’s contest, it was lobster and loin of lamb. You’re given six lobsters, two loins of lamb, and you have to come up with recipes to feed 12. You present it on a platter presentation for eleven and a plate presentation for one. And you’ve got five and a half hours to do it all. You cook the main item plus three garnishes. It’s nuts . . . I barely made it. The last hour went by in about ten minutes, and I was running my ass off. Everybody starts out cruising and you’re doing all right. Then you look at the clock and you go ‘Jeez,’ and you realize you’re in the shit, big-time. So everybody’s running around, and that’s when hands stray and grab this and that–when it’s mass mayhem.
“I made a foie-gras-and-lobster cake. It’s made with New York State duck liver and pureed lobster and some reduced lobster essence. The cake is inverted and decorated with the claws of the lobster and fresh truffles and chervil, with little rings of zucchini around the outside. And then I made a lobster plate with truffle sauce to go along with it. I was cooking in a French style using American ingredients.”
Jackson puts in about 10 to 12 hours a day six days a week in his cubbyhole of an office and in the kitchen, where he likes best to work with fish and sauces. He’d like to open his own restaurant a couple years down the road, and says it will “probably be something weird. It won’t be that stuffy. Maybe we’ll have guys in Nehru jackets instead of tuxedos or something like that . . . What I want is my own place where I can just go nuts. That’s what I’ve worked for. But cooking is the type of craft where the public has to accept you. So you’ve got to know your public, and you can’t go so far out of bounds where you get so weird with things and start turning off their palates.
“You get some places with stuff that just kills you. And what’s amazing is that, with all the PR hype that there is, people will come in who are not really knowledgeable about food, and they’ll eat shit like that and think it’s good because the newspaper tells them it’s good. That happens too.
“In France, you have a different type of diner in your restaurant. It’s nothing to sit down for a four- or five-hour meal if you’re going to some temple of gastronomy in France. It doesn’t bother people in the culture over there to sit down and maybe not put anything in their mouth for 30 to 45 minutes. In the United States, when a person comes in and sits down at a restaurant, he wants to eat. We’re an impatient breed. I know I’m that way. I can’t sit down in a restaurant for very long.”
Meanwhile, in La Tour, waiters in tuxedos are reciting the day’s specials in hushed tones. The kitchen is abuzz, and Jackson is plotting new strategies to wow judges with lobster and lamb. Some guys with healthy bellies and white T-shirts that say “Park Hyatt–World’s Greatest Stewards” are cleaning the place. A flashing red light is signaling a room-service order from upstairs. Someone is squawking “Give me the nutmeg! I need the nutmeg.” Another is demanding, “Where’s that snapper, damn it?”
Jackson is pouring some cream over dish of shrimp, calling out “Hey, is there any water down there, dudes?” and humming a rock ‘n’ roll tune.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.