Interview with Chef Jamison Blankenship of Morimoto - New York City

September, 2009

Will Blunt: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jamison Blankenship: I started working in restaurants when I was 20 in the front of the house and I spent seven years doing that. When I was 27 I wanted something more fulfilling from it, other than a lot of cash; I was the given opportunity to help out in kitchen and it just felt right. I enjoyed it and the gratification and satisfaction that came from it and how I felt about myself. And I liked spending so much time around food.

WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JB: It didn’t work for me. I went to Johnson and Wales in Miami for one semester and it gave me a bit of confidence because I wanted to see what I was up against. But I also had to pay for school and I was working full time. I learned more working than I did in school, but it seemed to work out just fine. If you are smart and work hard and you have a passion you can skip to working.

As far as culinary school my whole team is CIA graduates. A lot of my cooks are fresh out of school, whether from the CIA, FCI, or ICE. There is a constant flow of externs from the CIA that come here for free. I’ve seen a lot of guys that got a lot from it and bring a lot to the table and were serious about what they were doing. I think it produces some good cooks. As far as externs, they work for free so it shows me that this is what they want to do.

My team is older and got out of school a while back, but it seems to have taught them good skills. It helps us to have these young students because they are not jaded. They still believe and are still inspired by Chef Morimoto. We get all these Iron Chef fans and they see all this stuff happen here and it benefits me. I tend to prefer externs over more seasoned people. They are great blank slates, just naive enough and weak enough and there’s enough in them to turn them into exactly what we need.

WB: What have you learned from your mentors?
JB: I was self taught. I think I really sped up my learning curve. I didn’t develop relationships with anyone. I jumped into sous chef positions as fast as I could and took my first chef job when it popped up and kept teaching myself and holding myself up. It wasn’t until I worked for Chef Morimoto that I had a personal relationship with a chef who trusted me and guided me, and he has never taken his eye off me. He knows when to bust my [butt], when to give and when to hold back. And I try to think about what makes him happy and what he needs, all the while still having an open door to talk about what I don’t know and what I can’t do. He challenges me constantly. Even now we are filming eight iron chefs, the most we have ever done in a season. The longer I spend with him the more I understand what he’s about and what he wants. I am still surprised by him. Seeing how things get pieced together is amazing to me, from exploration to engineering. It’s remarkable when you get to the end of it. You see him in his food. I really respect him; his soul is in his food. His identity is in his food. There is no one else like him.

WB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JB: Be awake and patient. Just know that nothing is immediate. I’m still discovering things and going down the same road with the same things and rediscovering things. My peripheral is still widening and I’ve been looking at the things for years. Be patient with it and just work.

WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JB: It comes from a great meal I had. I love eating at home with my wife, because you have to work up to eating out. But every now and then I get lucky. We were in Montreal and we spent a whole day walking and exploring, so when we were hungry we had earned that hunger. We went to a place that was recommended to us and we were ready. We sat at the bar and it was as if everyone there recognized our needs. We had nice conversation with the bartender, drank great wine, and they shucked fresh oyster for us while we sat. It was good, unpretentious food and I was satiated. There was perfect bread and butter, great oysters, and a great meal. If that could be recreated that would be wonderful. We are busy at Morimoto because it’s such a high volume place. It’s a nicer experience sometimes to have a nice, slow, graceful meal. That essence is what I’d like to obtain: to be just perfect.

WB: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn. Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
JB: I’m always impressed with the basics.

WB: I like how you put the stock together. Tell me about how you did that.
JB: Yeah, that’s a great technique of layering flavors, keeping it clean and clear, but it gets deeper and more mysterious. It’s about the process. I spend a lot of time bringing people back to the basics here. In one sense we became a brand for Morimoto and we are an inspiration for the cookbook that will feature his signature dishes. We focus on the purity of the dishes and reiterate how to focus on the dishes. It’s about remembering how we do it and not to let them change it, like remembering how to make the dashi properly.

WB: Is it like butchering properly?
JB: Ninety percent of our fish comes in and comes right to the head sushi chefs. It’s not like we do huge interesting animals. But as we look at the precision and techniques of how the sushi chefs clean fish, we want that same aesthetic and attention with our food. Being one with exactly what you are doing is important, like “I am the fish.” Learning about it as you are doing it is important so it’s not a mindless act.

WB: Define “American Cuisine.” What does it mean to you?
JB: We have access to the world. American cuisine is accessing food from everywhere and everything out there and it’s nice to see. There still has to be reverence to techniques and ingredients. If we apply it we need to pay it respect and use it intelligently.

WB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JB: There is overexposure to media and books and modern gastronomy. Chefs are taking an aesthetic and copying it. I think I am starting to see things becoming homogeneous in a bad way, with everyone plating the same. Things start to look alike. I think it’s because there are creative chefs out there that everyone wants to be like; they want to explore similar layers and textures and it makes it boring. I think there is a driving force for chefs wanting to be modern and of the moment. Customers and businesses want to be of the moment and there isn’t enough authenticity that good chefs are drawing from that makes it easier to shop from what’s working. There is a “back to basics” and making really good food without bells and whistles trend, and we see it a lot in something like charcuterie. A lot of chefs are stepping down from high end food and want to feed the people. That’s the best trend right now.

WB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JB: I’m not really. I have Morimoto’s agenda, with a lot of traveling and events. But we do a lot of classes. We have done three classes at FCI, including technique classes where we show [the students] something they’ve never seen.

WB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized? Why?
JB: Dashi broth. From a stock to a soup to an addition to a braise to a soy it can be everything. It’s versatile and very flavorful. It’s quick to make too. It’s perfect.

WB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JB: I love light acidity, and I try to balance everything out the same way. You need enough umami flavor for that savory-ness. I think everything should have a nice balance of acid. I really love the way acidity brightens and rounds out and pulls flavors from a dish.

WB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JB: Maybe teaching.

WB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
JB: I think success is that you never know what will happen the next day, because thousands of things happen each day. I feel very successful. If I feel I have managed to burn myself to the very end that day and given all of myself, that feels successful. Bringing up my team to the point where I someday won’t have to exist, because they could assume everything that I know. I’m pushing them to do and know everything that I do, and watching them grow and teaching them and keeping them straight. If Chef Morimoto acknowledges something great that I’ve done it’s a success. He expects it. What I do should always be the best, so when I do get a compliment it counts for a lot.