For 2011 New York Rising Star Chef Jesse Schenker, childhood’s major focus wasn’t found in the toy store, school yard, or even in the deep recesses of his own fantastical imagination. His focus was in the kitchen; little Schenker was interested in food—deeply interested. And growing up in the epicurean variety-pack that is Florida, Schenker’s appetite only grew. So he began requesting menus from his parents’ dinners out. And unlike non-culinarian kids of his own age group, busy collecting action figures and the like, Schenker began collecting cookbooks. His collection—like his culinary skills—has since grown (to around 350 books).
Schenker’s first food job might have been at McDonald’s, but the chef went on to stage at some of New York’s most illustrious restaurants, including Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and Thomas Keller’s East Coast outpost, Per Se. Schenker went on to work at Gordon Ramsay at the London before finally opening the temple to his own gastronomical dreams, Recette.
With Recette, which opened in January of 2010 when the chef was a whopping 27 years old, Schenker has a forum for his own unmitigated creativity. A contemporary urban restaurant,Recette is the kind of place where comfort meets attitude and indulgence meets sophistication. It’s as much an expression of Schenker’s personality as his culinary perspective, blending his love for refined technique with the worn wood simplicity and old-school familiarity of the classic neighborhood restaurant.
Interview with Chef Jesse Schenker of Recette - New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jesse Schenker: It wasn’t an option. It was instinctual. It was the driving force when I woke up every day. Researching food, cooking food, eating food. I couldn’t help it.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JS: Honestly, the best thing for a young chef, a young person in any industry would be to just shut your mouth, kind of look and listen to everything, and take it all in. I feel like there’s this preconceived thing [where] you go to culinary school and come out and be a chef and in charge, and everyone will jump right into spheres and liquid nitrogen. But it’s really starting from the ground up, learning how to crawl and then walk and then run. My first cooking job was cooking burgers at McDonald’s. Dishwashing, cold starter, worked my way up to cooking—that was the traditional path I took. Be well developed, well versed and well rounded in a kitchen. Just listening, reading. As soon as you think you know it all, you stop learning.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
JS: I went to a vocational school for culinary arts. I think it’s a good idea. You learn some basics. You don’t learn how to be a chef or a good cook going to culinary school, but you learn things that actually come in handy in the future. I look back to sauces, techniques that I learned that are pretty Escoffier-esque, that I apply now in my restaurant. You could save the money and read Jacques Pépin's Complete Technique cover to cover, but I don’t think anyone is gonna do that.
I don’t even really hire based on résumé. I don’t care what you know or what you say you know; I care what you can do. So it’s really just if you come in and you can do it, then you have job.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JS: I would say Recette is the perfect example of my personality in food and dining, the way the menu is set up in terms of many plates versus big entrées. I like refined flavors. I like using a lot of techniques, a lot of fresh ingredients, but not using too much technique where you sacrifice flavor. Ultimately I would say a lot of good technique, fresh ingredients, and just making scrumptious food. Combinations that work. I cook for the people, not for myself. I want people to come into Recette and say, “Wow he’s a skilled chef, he’s using great techniques, everything is artfully presented, but everything is really, really scrumptious.” A lot of great chefs may use too many techniques that look beautiful but are dull in terms of flavor. Others may have super flavorful food but lack technique. Trying to find that balance is ultimate goal for my cuisine.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
JS: First and foremost, being in New York, it’s seasonal. So I think about what’s in season. Then I think about what spot I want to fill in the menu. As we move to fall, I want to run [a trout dish] through September. I know I want to change it. I like Tasmanian ocean trout, I love the fish, and this time I’ll roast it. The technique changes with the season—steamead to roasted, with aromatics, thyme, garlic, and I change the garnish. Instead of doing summer chickpeas I’ll work with some parsnips or root vegetables, and something a little more earthy for the sauce. Don’t know which way I’m going to go. Seasonal first and foremost.
Seasonality, then technique, then flavor combinations kind of working the same line of technique. Plating comes in last minute. I won’t figure it out before the first order comes. It comes naturally. I think first of all we’re a busy restaurant, the details are there, but I’m into simple, pure, garnish, protein, sauce, little micros or something fitting.
EB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JS: I love acidity. That’s huge. I’m big into lemon, big into vinegar. I’m into salty. I don’t love sweet stuff, I like sweet and salty. Presently I love flavors of like lemon and heat, cayenne and lemon. I like the flavors of anything with bacon and vinegar. Some kind of pork product and vinegar. I’ve got pork belly right now. It’s got Sherry caramel, it’s sweet, salty, and acidic, and it’s rich with pork. And I like Mediterranean flavors in general. Lots of fresh herbs. Olive oil. I’m really kind of simple. Everything on menu kind of has similar theme. I definitely have a style. I’ll never do Asian. I won’t go too far into Latin America. I kind of stick to what I do and know well.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JS: Honestly, just keeping up with everything. To be a well oiled, successful restaurant in New York City, you’re really grinding at such a high velocity. I don’t mean speed, just keeping quality and standards and expectations. Consistency and grinding at a high level, day in and day out. You’re only as good as your last meal.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JS: Open the restaurant. I’m satisfied in the way that it’s running day-to-day. Talk about human error, you have human beings working for you. They have emotions. Life happens and shows up. Not everything is status quo. Until you do it, you have no freaking clue how hard it is. The commitment is huge.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
JS: I think when I was younger, instead of partying so much I would have liked to cook in Europe. I don’t regret it. It would have been nice to shoot out there. I had opportunities, and never followed through for some reason.
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
JS: We’re probably approached by—no exaggeration—about 30 to 40 charities, schools etc., that want us to donate. I do two every year no matter what, that’s Bid Against Hunger and Autism Speaks. I commit every year. Some others I’ll donate gift certificates to. For four or five years now I’ve done City Harvest. I think that’s huge. Obviously Autism Speaks is a great event. It’s a great charity.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JS: I would just say the success of Recette in general. I don’t think anyone individually is better than the other. Some have more weight and validity than others. For me I’m just proud of Recette’s success in general.
EB: What does success mean for you?
JS: The definition in Webster’s would probably say something financial. The restaurant is full every night. That’s obviously one form of Recette’s success. The fact that I have the accolades, whether the New York Times or New York Magazine or James Beard or Zagat’s, there have been numerous accolades, which also mean success. Ultimately I think the fact I was able to design a business plan, open a restaurant, execute it, and really accomplish what I set out to do, that’s success.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
JS: I don’t know. I just had a baby—6 months old. So five years, that’s far. Hopefully, I’ll still be grinding away, learning, taking it all in. I really don’t know. I kind of just feel like humility is a huge part of this industry and success in this industry. I feel like staying humble and working hard, and continuing to learn and research. I would never have thought years ago I’d be here now. I never thought I’d be having an interview with StarChefs. Everything continues to surprise me and humble me day in and day out.