Chef Award: Jeremy Fox
Ubuntu | Napa
As executive chef of Ubuntu, located in Napa, CA, Jeremy Fox gives new meaning to the concept of a meat-free menu. Rather than “vegetarian,” Fox describes Ubuntu’s meatless philosophy as a “vegetable restaurant” that celebrates the purity of fresh biodynamic produce and demonstrates a first-hand relationship with Napa Valley’s farms. Hailed as one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs of 2008,” Fox has made a name for himself with his innovative combinations of contrasting flavors and textures that highlight the strengths of his ingredients, most of which come from Ubuntu’s own garden. Fox’s wife, Deanie Hickox-Fox, our Rising Star Pastry Chef, is Ubuntu’s pastry chef.
After a successful tenure manning the meat station at Manresa, located in Los Gatos, CA, Fox was (ironically) more than prepared to take over the reigns at Ubuntu. Working under mentor David Kinch, Fox rose to the position of chef de cuisine during his last two years at Manresa, where he learned to view vegetables as more than mere side dishes and was encouraged to experiment with the restaurant’s own garden-fresh produce.
Fox has passed through the kitchens of esteemed restaurants Anson, in Charleston, SC, Mumbo Jumbo, located in his hometown of Atlanta, and San Francisco restaurants Rubicon and Charles Nob Hill. He’s staged at Michelin two-star De Snippe in Belgium, as well as St John and Michelin three-star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, both in London, England.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jeremy Fox: I always wanted to own a restaurant. My grandparents owned a pizzeria in Chattanooga; as a kid, I associated good times with eating in the restaurant. I didn't start with the intention of being a chef, but once I started cooking that was all I wanted to do.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JF: I don't want to be pretentious or pedestrian. Dining should be celebratory and fun, with people passing around plates in a comfortable environment; it should be like bringing someone into your house, the service should be friendly. If someone doesn't enjoy my food, I want to know why. I don’t have this “old-school” anger.
My biggest inspiration is naturally the garden—walking through the garden, seeing the state of each vegetable, knowing how long it will be until the vegetables come down to my kitchen—and that allows me to create menus that I think are unique because they’re not based on my past repertoire or what I know goes well; they’re based on what I have and what my staff needs to do to prepare and transform [the produce].
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
JF: My dishes are not really planned, they depend more upon what we’re getting from the garden. I don't say what we should order, I take ingredients and develop recipes over days—some of them may or may not become signature dishes. I rely more upon spontaneity; every day is a mystery basket.
AB: Going into Spring, what are your current favorite flavor combinations?
JF: Peas, white chocolate, mint, and macadamia nuts.
AB: You spent time manning the meat station at Manresa, how did that prepare you for your work at Ubuntu?
JF: I ran the meat station on my way to becoming chef de cuisine. I focused on charcuterie and designed an annual 14 course nose-to-tail pig dinner. It’s that type of meat cookery that I brought here [to Ubuntu]. We use every part of our produce—we’ll use large leaves as the base of a plate, we’ll braise the bulbs or conserve raw—we’re looking at vegetables in the same way as you would animals and trying to pay that respect.
AB: What trends do you see emerging?
JF: The trend everywhere is value. It’s not about technique or showing off what you can do on the plate. If people don’t get their money's worth they won’t come back.
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends?
JF: At this point I don’t read a lot of cookbooks, I learn from my cooks; everyone brings a lot of experience from their background. I’m not too proud to learn from the people who work under me in the kitchen.
AB: You’ve said that David Kinch was a mentor of yours – how so? What did you learn from him?
JF: I started working for David Kinch at a time when I had reached the title of executive chef and realized I wasn’t the chef I wanted to be. So after six years of cooking I started at the bottom, cleaning his walk-in and making staff meals. He inspired me about the fact that he was well-known but wasn’t just turning out the food he was known for. He was constantly evolving. He made me love cooking again and I think he took me under his wing pretty quickly. He was very supportive of everything I wanted to learn; he never screamed at me. He would push me to do my best. When I had an interest in charcuterie, he told me to order whatever I wanted to get. I started going crazy with charcuterie because of his support. He taught me how to carry myself, how to work in a kitchen, not being hectic, how to work with others with respect.
AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JF: From day one, that people be open-minded. We are a vegetarian restaurant and that limits what people can eat.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JF: Open a restaurant—it’s not easy. It’s both the most exciting and the scariest thing I’ve done, all at the same time. There’s the fear of failure, embarrassment, the fear of the unknown.
AB: What chef would you like to have cook for you?
JF: Grant Achatz—I haven’t eaten in Alinea and I would really like to.
AB: If there were one thing you could do over, what would it be?
JF: I don't think I would do anything over again. My fear is that if I changed something, I wouldn't be where I am today. Maybe I would have studied more pastry but, then again, I married a pastry chef.
AB: What advice would you offer to young chefs who are just getting started?
JF: With regards to culinary school, I’m on the fence. I didn't finish school. I guess it might get you in the door; it depends what you get out of it.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
JF: This restaurant. What happened here has far exceeded what I imagined. As a chef, you dream about getting an award. I didn't think I had any chance of getting it; it was something that really shocked me.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
JF: We’re working on a cookbook, which should come out next year. The book’s concept is, “a year in the life of a garden.” We don’t plan on having chapters for each season or different courses, but rather on the classification of ingredients (nightshades, capsicum etc.). I want to incorporate the garden into cooking.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
JF: Years ago, I would have said I would like to work in a record store, but record stores are ceasing to exist. I don’t really know what I’d do—I’d like to be a professional TV watcher.
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