Amy Tarr: Who or what inspired you to become a chef?
Jacques Van Staden: I remember cooking with my mother vividly. I’d stand on a little chair making meatballs and pastas.
AT: Having attended culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today?
JVS: It’s nice to have it but not necessary. It’s also good to have some experience. I have kids who come out of school and they are useless. My top kids are 20-21 and left school half way through. They came here and said, “Chef, I’ve learned more from you in 3 days.” Give me great attitude, no experience, and I’ll turn you into something good.
AT: Can you talk about your mentors?
JVS: My primary mentor was Jean Louis Palladin – the way he screamed and drilled it into us. He was honestly the person who got me to the point where I understand food. Food talks back to me. It tells me how it wants to be cooked and cut and handled. God, it was the toughest job of my life working under that man! Nobody was like Jean Louis. After you work with Jean Louis, you are untouchable. Nothing can faze you. I’ll never trade it for anything in the world. Never.
AT: How has your cooking evolved from Jean Louis?
JVS: I hate the ordinary. So many people stay within the box and stick to things they feel comfortable with. This is Las Vegas – as much as it’s changed even in 5 years, still you cannot give sardines away! So what you need to do with food here is to use ingredients that are both familiar and unfamiliar and use them at the same time. Like tuna tartare with watermelon. What helps, too, is the service. They call me the “golden goose” here! If I make something, they can sell it. The only challenge they could not sell was the sardines.
AT: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JVS: My whole life I wanted to be like a Picasso or Michelangelo, but cooking is a really a business. You can be a starving artist, but a starving chef? Always treat food with respect. Even if you do staff meal you’ve got to respect the food, you have to cook with pride and joy. But there is a line with food. The more you touch the food, you take away its simplicity and you make it into something else. It’s like having 20 facelifts. A lot of people forget the real truth about what the dish is about.
AT: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
JVS: Crunchy stuff! America’s favorite food is crunchy stuff. With foie I use rice crackers. With caviar I use crispy masagu - it looks like a dried rice ball. It’s the same size as the caviar, so I serve it on top of the caviar. Also dana dhal – dried lentils, and crunchy chor (crispy chickpeas).
AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
JVS: A tilting skillet or brazier– it’s so much easier to sauté or reduce things in. They keep the heat so whatever you make, you can do a bunch of stuff at one time. When you make a tagine it sears the meat perfectly, everything cooks at the same time, equally. For osso buco – I can put in 4 or 5 pieces – don’t have to mix and match flavors.
AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
JVS: I like to wrap fish in plastic and roll it to make medallions. Cooking is like poetry. There’s always a thief. We steal from each other, but how well do you apply it? I always incorporate texture, crunchiness. That’s what really sets it apart from your ordinary dish.
AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
JVS: Are you sure you want to do this? Why do you want to get into this business? From the answer I can tell immediately whether this guy is going to make it. If they say cooking is fun, I know they are not going to make it. It’s fun to cook for your friends. Cooking is hell. If you can survive hell, then it becomes fun again. The failure rate of restaurants is 75% - that’s the failure rate of culinary students as well. It takes 10-15 years of suffering just getting there. It’s your attitude and passion that gets you there.
AT: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JVS: Make sure you are passionate about this. Passion conquers all in this industry. If you do it for the money and the fame, there are much easier ways to get there.
AT: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JVS: Jean Louis’ book . Elements from Gray Kunz. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook for the techniques. Daniel Boulud’s cookbooks. Alain Ducasse with Frederick Labon’s pastry cookbook. El Bulli is phenomenal. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s books -there’s simplicity but it’s also very intricate. Marco Pierre White– growing up in South Africa, it was the first cookbook I ever got. I wanted to work for him so bad!
AT: What are your favorite restaurants in your city?
JVS: March Bacchus for lunch, brunch or dinner. It’s run by this couple and they are phenomenal – they do very simple stuff. You feel like you’re in France. It’s near the lake, it’s gorgeous. You’d never know you were in Las Vegas. Also Tuscany Grill – it’s an Italian place, has a huge menu, but good food.
AT: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JVS: With new techniques and equipment, the trend is you’ve got to be different than the next person. I believe you can be different. Little gadgets are also trendy, like how Michael Mina uses the coffee press to do the broth of the shellfish and filter out the shells.
AT: Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?
JVS: Our next place is going to be huge, a new trendsetter. Our goal is open 25 of this concept in the next five years, all over the country. It will be very casual, very sexy. I’m getting to the point where I’m businessman and a chef. I want to take our concepts and put them out there. At some point you need to make a decision how much do you want to be in the kitchen. My forte is concept development. I love to do it.