Sometimes creative roots don’t sprout the same kind of plant. This is the case with Jason Hall, chef de cuisine at New York’s iconic Gotham Bar & Grill. Coming from a family in the music and film industries, Hall knew he had something in him—genetic or behavioral—that would most likely insist on expressing itself somehow. Fortunately Hall split his childhood between two food cities: Toronto, a city with great Asian and Italian influences, and Nashville, where the family moved when Hall was 12. Working in the smaller, local restaurants of the city, staffed with a surprising number of CIA grads and relocated New York chefs, Hall realized his proper canvas was the dinner plate, his proper studio was the kitchen.
Hall attended The Culinary Institute of America and his career evolved among some of the country’s top culinary talent. His internship with George Morrone of One Market and Aqua exposed him to a high level of cooking and ingredients. And after graduation Morrone invited him to be part of the opening team at Fifth Floor. This West Coast sojourn taught Hall everything from the basic dynamic of a working restaurant kitchen to the kind of creativity and discipline necessary to stay afloat in a world of haute cuisine.
Back in New York, Hall was again in the company of top players, working at Craft among a veritable dream team that included Marco Canora and Damon Wise. In fact, when Hall eventually left, he was picked to open three Michael Psilakis restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Anthos. But craving one platform to which he could dedicate his whole focus, Hall came to Gotham under Alfred Portale, who uncharacteristically sought out an external hire for his chef de cuisine. And it has proven a worthwhile gamble, as Hall—who has a passion for American classics—continues to creatively push the boundaries of contemporary American cuisine. No doubt the family would be proud.
Interview with Chef Jason Hall of Gotham Bar & Grill- New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jason Hall: I kind of fell into it. I had worked at good local restaurants in high school and I thought it was something I was good at and I made a conscious decision to pursue it as a career. I had some other opportunities to go to some other schools and do some other things. I think that although it’s hard and it’s definitely labor intensive. I kind of justify that by saying this is something I really like doing. I like working with food and being creative.
EM: What made you decide to go to The Culinary Institute of America?
JH: I felt that if [cooking] was something I was really going to pursue, I wanted to get a plan together to figure out how I could be the best at something. I was going to dedicate a tremendous amount of energy. I made the decision and allied myself with the best school and best people I could. I had a good time but I also took it very seriously and used it as an opportunity to build relationships and to see demos, and travel, and take advantage of not being in a kitchen 90 hours a week. It was good for me to have flexibility in my schedule.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with a culinary school background?
JH: It helps, but it’s like anything else. It can help you get through the door but my take is that it’s completely up to the individual. Each person has their own integrity and their own standards. I have guys here that don’t have a polished pedigree, but they’re some of best cooks in NYC. It’s about cooking, technique, repetition of work, and how you hold yourself to those standards—not where you went to school. We don’t hire or even accept externs just based on a résumé emailed from the CIA. We make these guys come down and spend a couple of days in the kitchen on their own time to see if they fit into our team before we hire them.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JH: First select a group of chefs or a restaurant that you respect and want to learn from and go and work for them and enjoy being a cook and enjoy being in their kitchen. Appreciate that time being part of a team and the camaraderie that a group of cooks can bring. Enjoy that time rather than looking too far ahead. You have to be confident to cook before you can move on to do anything else. That confidence as a cook is going to stay with you. If you can’t cook you’re not going to be able to manage; you’re not going to be able to run a service and correct mistakes.
EB: What do you look for in a chef?
JH: I’m looking for someone that wants to come in and be a part of our team. I’m looking for somebody who attacks kitchen work and food with the same motivation that I have. I’m looking for people who want to be cooks, appreciate being a cook, and appreciate that lifestyle. I always tell that to anybody I promote to sous chef “You’re going to miss just coming in and setting up the station and being a cook.” That’s why I got into restaurants—because I really enjoyed cooking.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JH: We’re very customer first and we want to make sure we work with a balance that satisfies both the creative needs of the chef and also enticing things that our customers want to eat and enjoy. I want to create something that I enjoy making and also enjoy eating. We want to be able to make something a three-star captain can explain to a guest. If it’s too analytical or too cerebral then it’s not good for the restaurant. We try to develop things that are refined with nuance and creativity, but also stand for something that people want to eat.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
JH: For me it’s about defining the essence of the season. What would I want to be eating in the first week of August? You want to keep the identity of the season straight, number one. So it’s not going to be a braised lamb shank. You want to use your abilities to make it interesting and to make it refined without overworking the dish.
EB: How do you define a successful restaurant?
JH: It’s a busy restaurant that can support a good schedule and a balanced life; success is being able to have the resources to have a full staff and a full team of sous chefs and a full management team. That allows the restaurant to be just as good as when you’re not there. Standards are going to be maintained. You’ve been there enough and put enough effort into your place and you know it’s going to be the same if you’re there or if you’re taking a day or two off like everybody else. We have achieved that here at Gotham and I’m looking forward to achieving it on my own with the same team. For me it’s all about support and training.
EB: Are you happy in the kitchen at Gotham? Does it satisfy your creativity as a chef?
JH: Our team is really healthy and strong, and we all contribute to the success of the restaurant. We have a positive, creative energy here. It’s not about egos; what it’s about is using everybody’s talents and everybody’s input to create the best thing we can for our customer. And being able to work with Alfred and have him give you input is kind of what it’s all about.
EB: Where will we see you in five years?
JH: Right now my focus is on putting all my energies into Gotham. Alfred and I are aggressively building a team and working maintaining the three star standards of this iconic restaurant.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over, what would it be?
JH: I don’t really have any regrets. It’s a tough business and you have to be resilient in order to grow. At Gotham we want our employees and our staff to be high functioning and well rested; we want to provide a quality of life here. There’s nothing worse than working with people that are burned out. That energy is not positive. It’s so important to have that healthy balance when you’re trying to be creative.
EB: Will you continue to work in New York?
JH: If I was going to leave, I would have left already. New York is one of the most competitive food cities there is and we have access to some of the greatest ingredients in the country. And it’s becoming more local each year. There are so many good restaurants and it’s so diverse and there are so many great chefs here. To be at a place like Gotham, where you can be a part of the community of chefs and contribute to the creativity in this city is something very special. People take a huge risk to run a business here and I’m proud to be a part of that cooking community.