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Hotel Chef Award: Jesse Mallgren

Madrona Manor | Sonoma

Jesse Mallgren feels entirely at home in his role as executive chef of Madrona Manor, where he has free reign of both the culinary program and organic garden that belongs to the Healdsburg, CA, restaurant. The San Francisco native takes full advantage of his freedom, serving creative New American cuisine based on classic French foundations and seasonal ingredients from Sonoma County.

The son of a professional folkloric storyteller, Mallgren grew up listening to his mother’s stories and eating the regional foods she prepared to reflect each tale’s culture and people. At an early age, Mallgren already found himself seduced by the exotic flavors and global influences that leapt from his mother’s dishes.

After taking his first job as a dishwasher, Mallgren learned to cook and perfect his culinary skills alongside some of the country’s most esteemed chefs. It was while working under Chef Gary Danko at Chateau Souverain, in Geyserville, CA, that Mallgren became familiar with wine pairing; and his time with Jeremiah Tower at San Francisco’s Stars gave him the confidence to experiment and lean more towards innovation in the kitchen. Before taking over Madrona Manor in 1999, Mallgren also received acclaim as the chef de cuisine at Syzygy, located in Aspen, CO.

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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jesse Mallgren: My first job was washing dishes. I originally wanted to be a lawyer and started cooking to pay for a skateboard I wanted. While in college, I continued to cook and eventually decided to drop out and pursue cooking professionally.

AB: What about it made you think that this is the career for you?
JM: I was planning on being a lawyer and then I realized how much paper work was involved; I didn’t like the idea. I was working as a cook at Chateau Souverain with Gary Danko. I found myself thinking about food all the time—even on my days off, I was thinking about food. I thought, if I’m thinking about it so much, I should do it.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JM: I look more for enthusiasm. It depends on your personality type—for some, school is great. It depends on how you learn.

AB: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
JM: Eat out as often as you can afford to.

AB: Do you get to go out to eat often these days? What does it do for you?
JM: Not as much as I used to with a 15-month-old baby. I try to go out to a high-end, fine dining place at least twice a month, or at the very least once a month. It gets the creative juices flowing and allows you to see different takes on things. Everyone has the same access to produce and going out allows you to see how other people interpret that produce. And it’s fun!

AB: Where have you been most recently?
JM: I went to Le Bernardin and Jean-Georges most recently. The service at Le Bernardin was probably the best I’ve ever experienced.

AB: Who is the coolest chef you’ve worked with?
JM: Martin Oswald in Aspen, CO. He was Austrian and knew how to enjoy life. It was good to go skiing before work—he taught me how to ski. If it was a good powder day, he would say, “Let's go skiing!” and we would go into work afterwards.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
JM: Usually a dish starts with what’s available in the garden—I walk around and see what we have. I also talk to the purveyors and go from there. I like to have acid, a base flavor and something fatty, which hits all of the taste components.

AB: What are you working on now?
JM: We’re working on a halibut dish with green almonds and peas—playing around with that and some braised octopus. We’re trying to cross-link some flavors with the almond, and we’re experimenting with braising the octopus. We started putting the almonds in with braising liquid for the octopus, but it didn’t give [the liquid] an almond flavor. Now we’ve just tried cooking it sous vide with almond milk; we’re using regular almonds, toasting them, and making the almond milk. With the sous vide you can actually taste the almonds in it. 

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JM: I love chilies, lime, and fish sauce, although I don't use any of those ingredients at Madrona Manor since they don't pair well with wine. But I love the Thai flavors of Bangkok.

AB: What ingredient do you like but feel is under-appreciated?
JM: Parsnips—you don't see them that much. I like to cook them with half and half, or mash or puree them. I also like spaghetti squash.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JM: I’ve had to confront someone using drugs at work and fire him.

AB: If there were one thing you could do over, what would it be?
JM: I would have worked in Europe early in my career.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JM: Cook things that you want to eat. Your food should complement your location and what you are trying to do. Since we are in wine country, I want my food to work with the local wines so that guests will remember both the food and the wine. Our menu is designed to start with lighter flavors and move to heavier ones. Our menu consists of three, four or five courses, but if a diner really wants a dish a la carte, they can order it.

AB: Which trends do you see emerging?
JM: I see a trend towards less fanciful and more classic flavor combinations. Japanese ingredients are also becoming more mainstream.

AB: Are you using any Japanese ingredients in your kitchen?
JM: I just got some really incredible uni from Japan. It’s harvested just north of Hokkaido and they ship it to you in the sea water. They have such a clean ocean flavor and are so sweet; they are much, much smaller than the ones I get from [California].

I’m also getting in fresh wasabi from Japan, and I’m using these scallops that are harvested from Korea but from a Japanese company. They are very firmly textured—like a cross between a scallop and an abalone, and they have a very sweet and clean flavor.

AB: What chef would you like to cook for you?
JM: Escoffier—I would be interested to see how the food we all build from was meant to be served.

AB: How involved are you in your local culinary community?
JM: There is a local culinary school in Santa Rosa, CA, that we hire and accept stages from. I try to get people to come to my kitchen before they decide to go to school.

AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JM: The biggest challenge is maintaining consistency while remaining profitable.

AB: How do you go about creating or maintaining consistency?
JM: All my recipes are in grams now and that helps from a consistency standpoint. I also do things in percentages, so instead of saying use 1 teaspoon of sugar I say use 15% sugar. It’s easier to multiply the recipe that way and judge how much you want so you don’t make too much or too little.

From a plating standpoint, I really have the cooks take ownership of the dish. I go over plating with them often. When they feel that they have ownership, they take it upon themselves to do it consistently.

AB: What are you doing to survive this economy? Are there any practices that are working for you?
JM: We watch everything we spend. We still buy the best ingredients we can, but in smaller amounts to create less waste. Both practices are working.

AB: Please explain what steps you’ve taken to become a sustainable restaurant.
JM: We recycle everything we can, including our fryer oil. We also grow our own produce and flowers for the tables.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JM: Being able to spend time with my son as well as at work.

AB: Where will you be in five years?
JM: I will either be here or I’ll own my own restaurant.

AB: In your own words, what is American Cuisine to you?
JM: To me, American Cuisine is taking a little bit from everywhere in the world and making it your own.


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   Published: May 2009