Interview with Chef Jason Stanhope of FIG – Charleston, SC
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jason Stanhope: I started cooking late; it is not something I always wanted to do. After Dad passed away, I went to culinary school in California on a whim. The camaraderie and coming together with a lot of people for a common goal was romantic. I loved taking an ingredient and making something memorable about it. People trusted me with nourishing their body and that is a big responsibility.
I went to school in San Francisco before I moving to Peru to work for Michael Ross, a German chef who ran Orient Expresses. I was broken into kitchen life by helping the fish chef. One day, there was no one to step in when he was sick and Michael threw me in the fire. I swam versus sank and was moved to fish station. Professional cooking is not just about cooking what is in front of you but while everything is going on around you. It became a romantic profession for me.
AB: Describe your cuisine.
JS: Timeless, like a great album or musician. It transcends time and grinds through all trends and fads. I am inspired by food. It is about restraint and sensibility. I don't like the word simple—it is the hardest thing we have ever done. It is about craftsmanship and respecting the product.
AB: Who are your mentors?
JS: My most important mentor is Mike Lata. He taught me about life, music, clothes, and relationships. He taught me about the art of balancing your personal life, to be happy and cook and make other people happy. He is a great leader. There are not many great cooks AND chefs who can get on the line, cook circles around you, and manage their personal life at the same time. I read books and stories about other mentor chefs but the biggest blessing I have had was working 14 to 16 hours a day with Mike.
AB: What has been the most challenging thing in your career so far?
JS: The most challenging thing can be the most rewarding. To work for my mentor was tough. It puts pressure on you to please, and it has been very difficult because constantly trying to please him. We work in an industry where a compliment is a lack of criticism. Even if you can do something right 365 days a year but on the last day do it wrong, you are scrutinized as to why. Working with your mentor watching over you is the toughest thing I've done.
AB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
JS: There are always awards but there needs to be an award for the best chef with the best personal life. I want to be making 200 people and myself happy but also somebody else happy.