Terra Madre: A Chef’s Perspective

Jeff Jackson, executive chef of The Lodge at Torrey Pines and Slow Food member, first received word of Terra Madre back in the summer of 2004. He was approached by the San Diego Convivium to participate in a fundraising event to send a small group of delegates to Turin. The idea excited him: the creation of a global network of food producers who recognize the importance of biodiversity and share in the belief of sustainable agricultural. Chef Jackson works closely with many San Diego farmers and was thrilled to support their presence at the conference. Upon their return from Italy, he was touched by their remarkable stories, but perhaps more importantly by their energy and desire to educate the public by sharing their experience with everyone from seasonal farm workers to restaurant regulars. When asked about his thoughts on inviting chefs to participate at Terra Madre 2006, he had much to say.

What are the potential benefits of creating an international chef community?

I think that whenever people of like minds get together to share ideas, it benefits everyone. There is so much out there in the world to learn from. Personally, I have adopted a philosophy of cooking where I try to use everything that is available to me locally. When the restaurant first opened, I made a decision that we were going to change the menu on a daily basis depending upon what we received from our local providers. And it has changed my style of cooking, it has changed my philosophy. After cooking for twenty-five years, I never realized how big of a difference there was between getting a carrot out of the ground that morning and getting one that is even a day or two old. The difference is huge! Being able to use these fresh ingredients makes my job that much more joyful. It is a treat to come into work. I don’t refer to this as work, I come into play. In the process, it has enabled my staff to become much more passionate about food and appreciative of what we have here.

Have you spent time in foreign kitchens? What have you gained from your travels?

Well, I cycled though Europe and worked the vendange a long time ago. When I first started cooking, I was working in French kitchens and didn’t really understand the food; I had nothing to relate it to. I loved what I was cooking, but I didn’t feel connected to it.

Why is that?

I hadn’t been raised on French food. I had never seen it before and didn’t know where it came from. A French chef can teach me how to make a genoise, or a croissant, or pâtés, but unless I go to the area they originate from and eat them and taste all their different variations, I don’t think I can truly understand them. That’s why I went to Europe and spent a lot of time in France, just eating at charcuteries and boulangeries. The experience really opened up my eyes. I took some of that understanding and put it into the cooking that I do now.

What have you gained from working with other chefs

Everybody comes from a different culture. You know what is interesting about a kitchen, is that wherever you work in the country, or in the world, there is a different way that kitchens operate. In New York, they tend to be very fast-paced, due to the space limitations in Manhattan. And consequently, the cooks that come from New York are very organized and focused because they had to be.

What stories and ideas do you like to share with other chefs?

In the earlier days, it was war stories and stories about what I was working on at the time. We always like to share what gets our motor running. If you surround yourself with those of a like mind and that have a passion for what they are doing, then it’s always a wonderful conversation.

Chefs undoubtedly play a critical role in the farm to table food chain. They are universally recognized for their ability to make food taste good. How would you define the role of the chef here in the United States?

My role is to pass on knowledge. This is a craft that I have embarked upon that I am passionate about. I feel very strongly about passing wisdom to those that work with me and around me, as well as my clientele. I also think my role is to support those who are growing, producing and raising the foodstuffs that I use. I care deeply about supporting farms in the San Diego area, and in Southern California. Having worked closely now with the local organic farmers for four years, I have learned how difficult it is to do what they do. I have more and more respect for them everyday. In the US, being a farmer or being a chef is looked upon not as highly as other professions, like doctors and lawyers. When one doesn’t have a formal education, I think practical knowledge and one’s relationship with our world, with nature, is very commendable and equally important. I believe it is something that people have forgotten about.
There is also a thing with chefs, and with the culinary profession in general; once you learn the basics and have acquired the fundamental knowledge of cookery, you start to grow and become a little bit more creative. A lot of times, creativity is a double edged sword. I can only speak for myself, but I have seen it happen with a number of other people too. You become creative for creativity’s sake, and you lose sight of what you actually should be doing. Ultimately we cook to please our guests; that is how we get paid. If our guests don’t come, we don’t have a job. Too many times chefs’ egos take over and we feel like we are some kind of wonderful artist and we do some pretty bizarre things with food. I look back on myself and cringe. I am a slow learner, so it took me a while.

Obviously the freshness of your ingredients cannot be underestimated. How do guarantee that the vegetables you are serving are the most fresh and flavorful available?

We visit the Farmers’ Markets and identify the farmers who are able to produce enough to allow us to partake of their hard work. There are a number of small, local farms that grow strictly for Farmers’ Markets and can’t provide the volume of food for a large hotel like this, or for restaurants. I worked in Santa Monica for ten years and I acquired a relationship with a lot of farmers there. I try to support them as much as I possibly can, enabling them to grow and develop. I found that they can now produce more because they have a local outlet for their products. I often call them to ask if they have a bumper crop they need to move, because I will use it. Every evening at the restaurant, we serve a family style vegetable when the entrée is served. This gives me the opportunity to utilize anything the farmers have that they need to move. It has been very successful. You know, one hand washes another.

And the circle doesn’t stop there. Your relationship with local farmers benefits the consumer as well. How do you promote public awareness and educate your clientele about the importance of supporting local farmers?

Let me go back to the vegetable that we serve every day. It’s amazing the number of people who get this vegetable on their table and, nine times out of ten, it’s cooked very simply. The greatest thing about having produce that has just been harvested is that you can take a hands-off approach. It took me a long time to realize that when it tastes that good – leave it alone. People went crazy.
We also spend a lot of time educating our wait staff. There is a board up in the kitchen with a list of all the farms we buy from and what comes from what farm. The staff is always aware of where things come from. And once a year I do a festival called ‘Celebrate the Craft’. The concept is to connect my guests and the guests of other participating San Diego chefs to the source of their food. We invite all the farmers we buy from, as well as some organic dairies, cheesemakers and ranchers, and we set up a Farmers’ Market on the terrace of the hotel. We invite out guests to meet the people who are growing the food that we are serving. Each chef pairs up with one of the farms and prepares what is available that day.

What efforts are being taken in San Diego to fight bio-devastation, and what do you see as the future of the small farm in Southern California?

That is a tough one because the land is worth so much money to developers. Originally the concept behind ‘Celebrate the Craft’ was to raise money to help the farmers who are literally having their land sold out from underneath them. The small farmers can’t afford to buy the land initially and so they lease it. They will work the land for years and years to obtain organic certification only to find someone who comes in and buys the land to build polo fields and million dollar homes on it.
We got involved with a local Farm Trust that worked to safeguard the land. After a year or two, we realized the 5 to 10 thousand dollars we raised with our festival didn’t even put a dent in our being able to buy an acre of land. I see education as the key to a better future. We must get children started and aware. Those are the people who will ultimately be making the decisions.

As America’s sixth largest city, with over 6,000 small farms located throughout its county and the draw of an incredible climate, one would expect to find excellent food in San Diego. Why is the city often criticized for its culinary scene?

We learn what is given to us in a sense, what is around us. This is a navy town and was taken over by chain restaurants. Coming from Chicago, it surprised me that in Southern California, people don’t take advantage of the natural abundance like they could. We are creatures of habit and often times we are raised in one environment and transplanted into another, and it takes a while to adapt. I know that my diet has changed dramatically over the past ten years. At the restaurant we really have a produce-driven menu. When we develop an item for our menu, an entrée, a salad, an appetizer, we usually start with the vegetable and build upon that.

What gets your motor running nowadays?

Happy customers. We have a lot of repeat guests. Recently I was having a conversation with Tim, one of my chefs, about two of our guests, a couple from New York. They said the vegetables are so good. “We don’t get vegetables like this in the city.” When I came back into the kitchen, I looked at Tim and said, “It’s amazing it’s working. People are identifying the fact that you can find the highest quality steak or the freshest piece of fish anywhere in the world, but what people are really identifying with here is that the vegetables have great flavor”. That is what really sticks out, that really comes to the front.

Marisa Huff is a collaborator at Slow Food San Diego

This article was first published in the Italian magazine Slowfood (number 12) published by Slow Food Editore last week

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