A Newark native and a North Carolina’s god son, chef Jesse Jones has his own inventive way to spice up southern cuisine. Whether it be his professional culinary training, his grandmother’s secret recipes, or his big aunt’s storytelling lessons, chef Jesse will be serving you flavorful southern BBQ with a side of smiles on his face. This year, he’s coming back to Pig Island to regain his Sexiest Dish award in 2020 and take over the coveted trophy with the most surprising recipes.
Food Karma: How has your family influenced your culinary path?
Chef Jesse Jones: My inspiration came from my grandmother in the beginning because I stayed with her when I was four years old. And being four years old, I was in love with BBQ. Every time I go down south with my sister, we would hit the BBQ joint where two ladies with the old country hats would bring us the best chopped BBQ and big pieces of white bread. And that has always been stuck in my head. I also touched on my aunts and my family a bit in the book, and even as I got older now they still inspire me so much. We had an aunt who was the pork queen, and what she did with pork was unbelievable, you know. And I made a great potato salad because of them.
FK: Did you also learn your storytelling skills from your aunts?
JJ: Yep! My aunt Bull was a master storyteller, she would gather people in a circle and just talk for days. When I was young, I went over my mouth. I thought that if I stood up and talked to someone, I would like, die. But the differences between my stories and hers are that mine came from redemption, pain, suicide, losing everything, yet my wife’s still with me and my family stays together. And people feel it, you know, when they come and when they taste the food, they really feel it. And so my book was for more people to know these stories and then see it through my dishes.
FK: Can people still get the book now?
JJ: Yeah, of course! “Pow! My Life in 40 Feasts” – 240 pages of recipes that are dear to my heart. They all mean so much to me because they are from my family, from chefs that I worked for, and it just tells my story about dreaming big and never giving up, even when I lost my house, my restaurant and really fell to the bottom. It’s available on Amazon, or on my website. I have books available if people want autographed copies also.
FK: That sounds amazing! And are you celebrating the book turning five this year?
JJ: Yeah I’m doing an event on July 31, and I’m teaming up with the Montclair Brewery using their Juneteenth special craft beer with hibiscus red hop. That’s gonna go with my fried chicken and sweet potato waffle. For $30 you get a signed copy, a beer and the sweet potato waffle and fried chicken.
FK: Sounds like an awesome deal!
JJ: Yeah! And if you love beer it’s gonna be a great microbrew fest for you. For this book, I just want young chefs to feel inspired and continue to work hard. My whole book is about being of color in this business, but with a positive note and solidarity in mind.
FK: Is it also an obstacle in the BBQ world being of color?
JJ: I think most Black chefs have had their ups and downs and adversities that they had to deal with in the industry. Growing up I didn’t want to be Black, ‘cause I always thought about why we had to go through so much, why we had to deal with all these problems. But when I get a little older, I’m happy to be Black and come back to support the community and maybe make one fewer kid feel that way. So I don’t really think about it when people say mean things and just go on with my own stuff. I think of them with a been-there-done-that mindset, because people were calling me all sorts of names when I was still in the kitchen.
FK: And how has your culinary training influenced your BBQing?
JJ: Over the years as a chef, I dibble and dabble in BBQ-ing quite a bit. Most chefs can smoke and we had to when we were in culinary school, but the pitmasters didn’t go to school but traveled around the country and became much more creative. But being a chef helped me a lot with developing and fixing my recipes. The techniques also come in handy when I need to marinade or brine.
But the most important part of my time in the kitchen for BBQ-ing was when I was a cleanup guy and the chefs wouldn’t let me touch their meat. That’s when I know I gotta teach myself, keep learning on my own and just keep on improving. It was the same with the pitmasters down South, I had all these questions for them but they would never tell me. But I’m gonna keep learning and figure things out myself, adding more of my inventions, just like my grandmother always taught me.
FK: So BBQ-ing is also an outlet for your creativity?
JJ: Yeah for sure! Like I did strudel last Pig Island and I got the technique award because I was doing my own French puff pastry, all fresh and homemade. I worked with master chefs and pastry chefs as apprentices, and now I’m here to show you all that I’ve learned.
FK: Are you excited to bring all these stories to Pig Island this September?
JJ: Yes, they always want to hear the stories, and they come up early and talk to me while I get set up. They’ll be like “Yo chef Jesse!” and I’ll be like “Heyyy!” So I’ll definitely be bringing the stories along to make their money worth, and hopefully touch some more people with my stories.
While Pig Island is a month away on September 10, you can catch up with chef Jesse by reading through his book “Pow! My Life in 40 Feasts,” which is celebrating its fifth year of publishing, or by following him on various social media platforms and reading our previous interview with the chef on his background and writing.