If you’ve attended any Food Karma event, you know Chef Jesse Jones is going to be there with his big smile and big flavors. He’s been a participant for years and always wins over the crowd with his personality, energy and food. We caught up with Jesse to talk about how his cooking has evolved, his love of barbecue and more. To hear more of Jesse’s stories, order a copy of his book Pow! My Life in 40 Feasts and to taste his food, get your tickets to 5 Boro PicNYC where he’ll be cooking in the Rib King competition.
Food Karma: How did you get involved with Jimmy’s events?
Jesse Jones: I met Jimmy through a mutual friend a long time ago, and the rest was history. It was love at first sight; he was the coolest dude and involved with the community. I’ve just been jumping on board to showcase my talent and support a good cause.
FK: When you met, had you cooked a lot of barbecue?
JJ: I’ve always done barbecue. I was known for my ribs in Jersey. I’m personally a lover of barbecue, period. Just being around great pitmasters and farmers in general really sparked my attention.
I’m not trained to be a pitmaster. I’m a chef that loves barbecue. People always said I couldn’t do it, so it’s always a challenge to be up there with the big boys and have people taste my barbecue. I’m a well rounded chef. I love barbecue, but I cook all types of food, all types of cuisine and work with a lot of master chefs. I picked up training from working with them. I will always be intrigued, especially by whole hog cooking.
FK: It seems like family has been a big influence on your cooking, can you talk a bit more about that?
JJ: Family has always been a major influence, and even more heavy now that my mom has dementia. I wanted to highlight the things that she taught me now that she forgot. It’s taking a toll on me mentally, but I try to enjoy through remembering and appreciate her for what she taught me. For Rib King, I’m going to bring out my country potato salad that’s fully loaded. Some folks are finicky about potato salad, but it’s got eggs and all kinds of pickles, just my little style. I’m quite sure she would love it.
FK: Did you help in the kitchen growing up?
JJ: Oh absolutely. The first thing that my mom taught me to cook was smothered chicken, that’s why that’s one of my specialties and everybody always loves it when i make it because that was the first thing she taught me. She always had me in the kitchen. I would always say that she forced me to go into the kitchen, but before she had dementia she told me that I wanted to be in the kitchen and would ask to come help.
Food is my life, that’s why she taught me. I know they say that you’re not gifted to cook, that you learn through trials and errors, but I really think God gave me the gift to have the patience and tolerance and love of cultures and what people do, that’s what really makes the world go round. I feel like I’ve gotta stay in it to win it. I’m learning, too. It’s a learning process.
FK: How did your book come to be?
JJ: I was into cookbook ephemera. I just wanted my stories to be out there, whether people cared or not, just be told and to have a legacy and touch a few people through my stories. That’s what the Food Network and all these other places want: real stories, family, the foundation of what brought you to this day, what’s your inspiration, what’s your drive. The stories of my grandmother and my mom constantly inspire me. My book has stories about my family, my wife, my sons, their recipes, chefs that I worked for, my French background. Cooking French food was tough because a lot of people didn’t really give me the accolades that come with cooking in four star French restaurants. There are some classic recipes in there along with my fried chicken, my ribs, all my signature dishes are there.
FK: Did you always know you wanted to be in the kitchen professionally?
JJ: At first I wanted to be a singer. I thought I was going to be a great singer, and then that didn’t work. They said, “don’t quit your day job,” so I found my second love of cooking because my mom always saw me cook. I wanted to entertain and I found that with food you can entertain as well with the music and sing and cook. I feel like I’m performing when I’m in the kitchen.
FK: What have you learned about your business and the industry during the covid shutdown?
JJ: I learned so much. I learned that all of the strong survive and I have a lot of respect for a lot of my chef friends making their business work. All the patience and the effort was awesome. It was devastating for the food business. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. A chef once told me, “as long as you can cook, you’ll always have a job.” Now a lot of people won’t be able to open back up, but the ones that really, truly believe in themselves and their business and their product can make it because if you really love to cook and you’re a good chef, you should be able to make it.
FK: How would you classify your barbecue?
JJ: My barbecue is a modern approach to barbecue. I always got my little French twist to it or just my own little special technique and rubs. Over the years, working with great chefs and helping pitmasters I’ve learned. Back in the day, you always lent a hand to pitmasters or chefs just to volunteer, so I learned a little bit of this, a little of that from them. I call it modern because I just go on my own and trial and error. I’m not trying to ask anybody for help. I respect the big dogs, but I like to learn on my own and figure it out. At these events, I get to have people taste it and give the ultimate feedback and get the feedback from my peers, too.
FK: Anything else you want to share?
JJ: I love food, I love feedback, I love people. I like to share my stories with people through my food. I’m a good chef and I’ve been doing this a long time. As a chef of color, it hasn’t been easy for me. I worked with so many chefs where I couldn’t represent myself. I represented them, which was great, but now I get to represent myself, and that’s important. Jimmy always gives me the greatest hospitality, always makes me feel at home, and that’s something I never had. There’s been some ups and downs, but for the most part God always makes the way. He has the angels like Jimmy and my other friends that will let me come in. By now, Jimmy knows that I’m not going to let him down. I’m going to try to make people recognize me. No matter if I’m in the front or the back, somebody’s going to taste my food and say this is pretty good and come back. I definitely want the world to know that I’m the real deal: you’re going to enjoy my food, you’re going to enjoy my stories, you’re going to enjoy my company, you’re going to feel the love and you’re definitely going to go home full.