Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
James Hackney: It was more of a happening. I grew up in the industry; my dad was a front of the house hotelier and my mom worked in the rooms. They had a place of their own so I lived in hotels growing up. It was [cooking] or acting. I didn’t think there was a good chance of getting good acting gigs, so I started cooking.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
JH: It's a lot different in England than here. It's a state thing, it’s free, and it’s more all-around. So you learn all the areas, you learn the basics, then you learn front of house management. When I was growing up it was more hotels, and [the hotels] had restaurants. [I wasn’t exposed to] as many individual restaurants. When I was growing up I fell more into the kitchen then the front of the house.
AB: Is there a culinary technique that you use in an unusual or different way?
JH: My best technique, which isn’t necessarily guided towards cooking, is being able to work with people and be able to help them understand what I need in the kitchen.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JH: My parents had a bistro back in England and having to go back and help them sell that. I was working in America and my visa ran out; to go home was great but it was a little jolt. It was hard to go back—the chef who was working there was terrible. That was hard emotionally more than anything to see it and clean it up. The ending project was good because I felt I'd achieved something.
AB: If you had one thing that you could do again (or do over) what would it be?
JH: I think I would have liked to do a bit more work in Europe. I was definitely nervous about the language barrier. Coming to America was what I wanted to do, but I feel as if I wish I'd been pushed more into Europe. I don't regret coming to America, but maybe doing an internship at a three-star Michelin restaurant at a young age.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JH: My philosophy on food is always difficult [to articulate]. My personality has lots of avenues and I try not to have just one vision on food. I like to have a wide spectrum so when it comes to philosophy I like to listen to lots of people and take from everyone. I'm not very good at just following one direction. I like constantly watching other people and seeing what other people are doing.
Standards are something I like to be set. I know when things look and taste good. But with philosophy I like to have freedom. That’s why working with Frank [McClelland] is great—he’s a forward thinker and always likes to have freedom in food. I guess that’s my philosophy in food—having freedom and the freedom to experiment. We don't have a golden rule; cooking is very wide and broad and helps everyone get along so well.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JH: We do events in town…[and with] the farmers market now we're involved that way.
AB: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JH: It's a constant rolling thing. I thought the best thing I did was get into L’Espalier, then moving up the ranks, then moving over here [to the new location]. I'm always looking for the next step. I guess where I am now is somewhere I couldn’t imagine being in this position. When you get there and grow and mature you always look to the next level.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
JH: I feel as though I definitely need something I can call my own. The best thing about having that chefs table in there is that you meet some great people. That’s been fantastic; the people have been blown away. I don’t usually go out into the dining room but it’s nice to meet the people at the table. They see how hard it is in the kitchen, and they are like we have no idea.