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- Saturday, 30 August 2014 14:06 | Written by Amira Eskenazi
Amira: Miami isn’t a big food town but it’s on its way. What do you think is missing here be it the client or the establishment?
Jason Smith: It’s a little bit of both. The establishments have good PR but once the client arrives, the restaurant doesn’t always come through. Also, the client in South Florida is very picky and not always ready to try new things. I think they have favorite foods and traditions as well as being into trendy food ‘allergies’ and all that is holding the town and the clients back from enjoying an incredible experience.
Amira: What do you think about chefs who refuse to modify their menus for clients’ when they order? I know your situation is different because you’re in a hotel but what about the chefs who have independent restaurants and won’t modify food for clients? Do you feel it’s fair?
Jason Smith: I don’t love it that it’s what the client is requesting but the client are keeping the doors open. I would modify food for clients if I was running an independent restaurant. I’m pretty forgiving. I’ve been known to steer guests in a bit of different direction from what they want so it ends up being a compromise.
Amira: If you could work with any chef anywhere at any time in history, who would it be and why?
Jason Smith: Morimoto. I grew up watching Iron Chef and I always loved his style and his respect for food. I’ve met him and he’s an awesome person. I drank his sake and his beer in one of the restaurants I’ve worked in. He’s a total character and he invited me to do karaoke in Japan. He’s a great guy and I had one of the best meals of my life in his restaurant in Manhattan. Maybe 20 courses with sake and I ate things I never saw or heard about it my life.
Amira: What do you think is the most important thing you look for when hiring a new cook except their basic skills?
Jason Smith: Heart and motivation. Meaning, this is what I want to do, no matter what. I want to learn as much as I can, I don’t care how much money I’m going to make. This is what I want to do with my life and this is how I want to get there. I do all the hiring and I always say “I will hire someone with zero experience and a ton of heart compared to someone with a ton of experience and no motivation.” You can see it when you interview them a lot of the time. I hire by feeling. I see how their eye light up when I talk to them about food.
Amira: That being said, what do you think about very, very expensive cooking schools and how they frame the idea of how their school is going to give the student something that a less expensive school can’t give them. Along with that, is it worth the huge debt load the student is left with after leaving school?
Jason Smith: Two of the best chefs I’ve worked for did not go to culinary school. They just so happened to work with Wolfgang Puck. I think possibly if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have gone to culinary school. I paid $30 000 for an associates degree in culinary but now that same degree costs $60 000. I have friends who have culinary bachelors degrees that are in debt for $120 000. It’s hard to make that money back in the industry. You have to be exceptional to be making back that money in less than 10 years. You have to be a genius. I think more in big corporations and huge hotel chains, those degrees are important. Anybody that asks me, and a lot of parents ask me about it for their kids, about going to cooking school I always tell them to have the kid work for at least 2 years in a restaurant and make sure this is really what they want to do. It’s not glamorous, it’s not cooking shows and world travel; it’s working 12 hours a day. Only then should they go to cooking school and only if they can afford it. I say go to Manhattan, go to the best restaurant you can find and start as a dishwasher. If you want to run a restaurant one day you have to know everything. Your resume will then get you the jobs. I can imagine that a small community school can teach you everything.
Amira: If you had the chance to eat anywhere where would that be.
Jason Smith: Noma in Copenhagen. I love the concept that “if it’s not growing it’s not on the menu”. I have the cookbook and I started reading about how one winter all he had was potatoes. He had to branch out a bit that season.
Amira: What is the one thing that you think people misunderstand about being a professional cook?
Jason Smith: The dedication, the hours and the hard work. Also, no one realizes the small amount of profit that restaurants make. I’ve worked 7 days a week 18 hours a day but that’s what I want to do. It evens out in the end and you can take a vacation but I think people don’t understand how much work it is. It can take 3 days to make a veal jus. Like a steak for instance; we have a 18oz dried rib eye. I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to see inside that steak to know when it’s ready on the grill.
Amira: How do you feel reality televison’s portrayal of the food service industry has impacted new, young cooks compared to when you entered the industry?
Jason Smith: Jaded. Everyone thinks they know everything. It’s not real life. It’s scripted and fake. I think the early forms of reality tv like cooking shows made me want to be a chef. Yan Can Cook and the Frugal Gourmet. I didn’t know that being a chef was actually a job until I worked in a kitchen by chance. I think reality TV has helped the industry in some ways but it’s also given people a false sense of food knowledge.
Amira: If you could open the perfect restaurant, what would the concept be and why?
Jason Smith: I have 3 types of restaurant ideas in my head right now. I would like to open a basic taquillria. Just really good tacos, burritos, enchiladas for an American pallet. I would like to use authentic Mexican sauces but tailor it for a healthier American diet. Also, and Indian Restaurant; there aren’t many good ones here in South Florida. I would like to add a bit of American style to it and freshen it up a bit. Also, a gastro-pub. It’s very trendy right now but I love heart attack food but in a pub style. Foie gras, sweetbreads, not too expensive and tapas style. Good beers. That’s the kind of place I started in 20 years ago. All home made bar food. So that style but with more of an upscale, French twist and to use as much local and sustainable as possible.
Amira: Do you remember a dish that you felt very proud of or something that was a turning point for you?
Jason Smith: Hard question. I make dishes and then I hand out the recipes to the cooks and I then forget about them. I love them but sometimes I even forget how I made them. My sous chefs own them now. I think when I was working for a sushi chef who was an American, flavors were bigger than the traditional Japanese way. I created things there that gave me wow moments. It was more of a style that I learned that was a turning point than a particular dish.
Amira: How do you embrace trends and integrate them?
Lightly, and not everywere. Yes, I pay attention to trends but I try and make it my own style. Don’t put a trend on everything. For the past 10 years, the micro green trend has continued for example. It’s actually a sprout. I’ve been to restaurants where there are micro-greens on every single dish. Micro celery and micro mustard greens are delicious but you can’t put it on everything. I’m not the trendy type and I try and stay outside to some extent. Everything will be dated to some extent but just try to fall into popular trends too hard.
Amira: When you’re creating something, where do you get inspiration? Environment? Method or routine? Just let things pop into your head?
Jason Smith: I look around. I can’t create food unless I’m looking at food. One of the biggest ways I come up with dishes in looking in the cooler. I get a list of ingredients in my head and see how I can twist. I often times take classical stuff and twist it. I look through a lot of books. I may use ideas for sauces but I almost never use exact recipes. Looking at trends, book, the cooler. I go to my produce company’s website and I see what’s in season. I usually start with a vegetable and then add a protein and a sauce. I grew up on an organic vegetable farm so that’s always where I go first in my head.
Amira: You’ve been in the industry for around 20 years; from your experience, technically speaking, how have cooks advanced? Or have they?
Jason Smith: Some have, some haven’t. The industry is very watered down right. There are lots and lots of restaurants and lots of mediocre cooks. If you find a good cook, grab him and pay him. He’ll eventually move on but while he’s there, you’ll get a better product. I think we’re getting better in the industry in general. There are more minds, more recipes. Things are evolving incredibly fast. I think the classic skills are getting neglected though. Here in Miami for example many new cooks don’t start as prep cooks and sometimes don’t have basic, classic skills and procedures.
Amira: Do you think the cooking schools and the media are causing this? Cooks not taking 3 or 4 years to be apprentices or is it because of the amount of new cooks?
Jason Smith: I think it’s the need for cheap labor. You have a strong sous chef and a couple of strong prep cooks and that’s about it. It’s an economical thing. A lot of it is economic. Once you would get paid by shift. That’s illegal now so you have to pay cooks by the hour. Now it’s impossible. Once you learned much more because of the hours. No one wants to pay overtime so the cooks only work 8 hours a day now. Now, regular cooks don’t do what they used to because they work less hours.
Amira: So here’s the signature question for the World Gourmet Society; what does good food mean to you?
Jason Smith: Good food is more than just food. It’s good company, a good time, experience, family friends, laughter, good wine and enjoying your experience. I’ve been to restaurants that aren’t the best but the people, the atmosphere was great so I’ll always go back there. I can see it where I work now at the steak house in the hotel; if the guest is upset with the hotel, then they won’t have a great experience with me and it may not be good food for them. It’s subjective. I grew up in the country so until this day, every meal we have at home we have together and I have breakfast every morning with my kids. That makes good food.
Amira: Anything to add before we’re done?
Sure.. have an open mind. Always be willing to try new things and be forgiving :-)
Jason Smith / Bigoraphy
Born and raised on an organic farm outside of Indianapolis, Indiana Jason Smith was destined to work with food. His mother grew and sold edible flowers to restaurants in the city and his family always had plenty of fresh eggs, vegetables, and fruit at meals. With such exceptional exposure to the earth and to farming, Smith’s desire to cook increased throughout childhood. Like many chefs, Smith’s basic cooking skills were taught to him by his mother. Beginning with French toast and working his way to homemade barbecue sauces and grilled steaks, Smith continued to challenge himself as a young cook while balancing school and a number of farm responsibilities.
After gathering significant restaurant experience in high school, Smith moved to Miami to pursue an A.O.S. in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University. Shortly after graduation, Smith dove head-first into the Miami culinary scene, first at Nemo under Executive Chef Michael Schwartz. He quickly became fluent in the signature dishes and flavors of Florida, mastering everything from crispy prawns to wok-charred salmon. Smith continued his work in Miami at a number of popular restaurants including WISH with E. Michael Reidt, Pearl in South Beach, and The Biltmore Hotel with Geoffrey Cousineau. Most recently Smith worked as Chef de Cuisine alongside Chef Govind Armstrong at Table 8 in the Regent Hotel. As Chef de Cuisine at Stephen Starr’s Steak 954, Smith looks forward to serving perfectly charred meats along with bountiful selections of fresh local fish.
To obtain a culinary position where my food knowledge and skills will contribute to the success of the company as well as a perfect dining experience.
- Mar. 2009-present Chef de Cuisine, Steak 954, W Hotel Ft. Lauderdale, FL Stephen Starr Restaurant Organization
- Sept. 2006-Mar 2009 Chef de Cuisine/sous chef, Table 8, Miami Beach, FL Chef Govind Armstrong
- Jan. 2006-Sept.2006 Catering Assistant, Mediterasia Consulting Inc., Chef Michael Jacobs, Michael’s Genuine Food And Drink, Chef Michael Schwartz
- 2003-2006 Executive Sous Chef , Wish at The Hotel, Miami Beach, FL, Chef E. Michael Reidt & Chef Michael Bloise
- 2002-2003 Chef de Cuisine/sous chef, Pearl at Nikki Beach, Miami Beach, FL, Chef Frank Jeannetti & Chef Brian Maloy
- 2001-2002 Sous Chef, Breez (Billboard Live), Miami Beach, FL, Chef Jason Neirling & Chef Frank Jeannetti
- 2000-2001 Sous Chef, 1200 at The Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, FL, Chef Geoffrey Cousineau & Chef Frank Jeannetti
- 1997-2000 Chef de Partie, NEMO, Miami Beach, FL, Chef Michael Schwartz & Chef Frank Jeannetti
- 1996-1997 Line Cook, Williams Island, Aventura, FL, Chef John Mecoli 1993-1996 Kitchen Supervisor, The Ale Emporium, Indianapolis, IN, Barry Reynolds & Marc Luros Indianapolis, IN
Johnson & Wales University, A.S. Culinary Arts, May 1999 3.9 GPA
- James Beard dinner August 2008 with Govind Armstrong and Ben Ford
- James Beard dinner Sept 2009 three Steak Houses of Starr Rest Org.
- Awarded 4 stars and 4 diamonds at WISH 2003-2005
- Awarded 4 stars and 4 diamonds at Biltmore Hotel 2000-2001
- Taste of the Caribbean in Barbados 2007, South Beach Food and Wine Fest 8x, including hundreds other charity events in the South Florida area
- Full page picture in Miami Modern Living and Ocean Drive, Wine Enthusiast Top 100 wine restaurants 2012,2013,2014, also pieces in Miami Herald, Sun Sentinal, New Times, including numerous other mentions in other national, northeastern, and southeastern publications
- South Florida Live cooking demo 2x, South Florida Today NBC6 5imes, Deco Drive 2x, Aprons Cooking class, channel 10 cooking demo, Lindt Chocolate cooking show
- Three “Food Network Challenges” as production crew
- Raised on organic farm, MOM is a personal chef, brother is an up and coming chef, cook from scratch most meals for two children and wife
- Trained all chef staff for second Starr Restaurant in FL, ex-sous move to exec chef
- Opened 8 oz Burger Bar in South Beach with Govind Armstrog
- Staged at the Forge, Barclay Prime, Parc, Butcher & Singer, Hudson Catering (Danny Meyer), China Grill South Beach
- Casting call for Chopped and Next Food Network Star