Will Blunt: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Kurtis Jantz: I was an army brat, born in Japan and always exposed to different foods. My most memorable experience was my grandmother’s bakery. I love cooking for the satisfaction of satisfying other people – making people happy.
WB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
KJ: I worked in the Caribbean, which was a big stepping stone for me because it opened my eyes to new cultures. Around 1995 I sold everything and went backpacking in Europe. I worked in Switzerland in small chateaus – not Michelin Star places. From 1997-2003, I worked at the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans. That experience taught me ways to try to make New Orleans food outside of Cajun/Creole.
WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
KJ: I went to a small culinary school in Kansas City – not CIA, but in exchange, I got more attention from my instructors. Culinary schools need to work better to prepare to work hard and be patient so they can avoid false expectations.
WB: Who are some of your mentors?
KJ: Richard Thompson at The Admirals Club in DC, and David Cross in Northern Virginia. We worked together in Kansas City.
WB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
KJ: Where is your passion for the industry? Are you in it for the long haul? Can you cook an egg?
WB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
KJ: Have humility and patience. Read as much as possible and soak things up.
WB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized? Why?
KJ: Celery – it’s versatile and underappreciated. I like to approach it a la Paco Torreblanca, both as a mirepoix base and as a featured ingredient.
WB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
KJ: The internet – for the knowledge and the amount of possibility. And then after that it’s my Shun utility knife, spice grinder, vita-mix, and immersion circulator; the list goes on.
WB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
KJ: The el Bulli series is invaluable. And Pierre Gagnaire’s book, Reflections on Culinary Artistry, blew me away. It’s ingenious. The newest books I am studying are Peru Mucho Gusto (the best book on Peruvian cuisine to date), and Pierre Gagnaire Reinventing French Cuisine.
WB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
KJ: I would like to go back to Japan, where I was born, to learn more culinary traditions, like Kaiseki.
WB: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in your city?
KJ: Yakko-San and Little Saigon.
WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KJ: With the Trump environment it’s about taking something and giving it a twist, doing it really well, and providing added value.
WB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
KJ: There is an ever-increasing knowledge of how to use ingredients. There’s also a drive to improve dishes, often through science and new ingredients, [which is great] so long as there’s an understanding of how [the products should be] used scientifically.
WB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
KJ: I’d like to serve Robert Plant or Jimmy Page a really cool dish of vegetables. I’d love for Marcus Samuelsson or Pierre Gagnaire to cook for me.
WB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
KJ: I’m very liberal about doing as many charity events as possible. I’m involved with March of Dimes, and I love to network with other chefs – at the International Chefs Congress, for example.
WB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
KJ: That’s easy! I’d be some kind of musician – rock, most likely.
WB: What does success mean for you?
KJ: I feel like I’m already really successful. I like to come to work every day. I’m happy when I come home.