Hello, Cleveland! Best New Chef Jason Vincent represents hometown
The Aspen Times
Jason Vincent, chef of the Nightwood restaurant in Chicago, has some idiosyncratic tastes. Among these is the jam band Phish, which he guesses he might have seen 200 times. (While idiosyncratic, his tastes are not unrefined. Vincent didn’t indulge in the parking-lot cuisine at Phish shows: “Veggie burritos and grilled cheese? Disgusting. You’d have to go to the bathroom immediately. Who wants that?” he said.)
Vincent also is a huge fan of his hometown, Cleveland, going so far to call it the greatest city in the country. Vincent is aware that this is a minority opinion. Growing up there, he assumed that no one outside of Cleveland had any idea of what was going on in the city. So Vincent was amazed to learn, in 1998, that a local chef, Michael Symon, who had earned a following at the Caxton Cafe and then opened Lola, was named as one of the best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine.
“It was a food desert — there were no big-name chefs,” said Vincent, who had started at the Culinary Institute of America that same year. “So a local guy, the chef at Caxton Cafe, on the same level as all these other guys? That was crazy. That made a huge impression on me. I still remember the newspaper clipping on the refrigerator.”
Just how down-to-earth Symon was — perhaps how Cleveland he was — also had an impact.
“All the other people on the list said how much they loved French food,” Vincent recalled. “And Symon said he liked to eat the Romanburger at Mr. Hero — a burger with salami on it, fried on the griddle on a big hero roll. It was disgusting. I thought that was f—king cool. No pretentiousness. The guy liked to eat hamburgers.”
Vincent became a fan not only of Simon but also of the best new chefs award, keeping an eye on the list each year. He knows, off the top of his head, that since Symon made the list, there has been one other Clevelander honored as a best new chef: Jonathon Sawyer, of the Greenhouse Tavern, named in 2010. That long-running interest in the award makes it especially significant for Vincent to have been named to this year’s list. He joins 10 other chefs being honored at this weekend’s Food & Wine Classic, which marks the 25th anniversary of the best new chefs honors. To mark the occasion, the Classic presents conversations with Food & Wine Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin and former honorees Wylie Dufresne, Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert (10 a.m. today). This year’s class of best new chefs will be introduced at a party on top of Aspen Mountain.
The 37-year-old Vincent, whose co-honorees include the chef of a sustainable seafood restaurant in Minneapolis and the owner of a New York City taqueria, says it’s difficult not to pay attention to the best new chefs awards.
“It’s important to cooks, and very transparent. You see people get it and then you see their careers explode,” he said. “You put two and two together.”
Vincent’s first job in the kitchen came when he was 14, when he started washing dishes in a family-style Italian restaurant. He liked hanging out with his co-workers, older guys, college age, who barely knew a thing about the bigger culinary world.
“We’d make food just for us. It was terrible — Hollandaise sauce, and none of us knew how to make it,” he said. “But they had a creative spark.”
Vincent was kicked out of an upstate New York college where he studied English education. (He declines the mention the college by name; he refuses to give it publicity.) He spent much of his time cooking — in a college-run restaurant where he served “terrible food to two customers a night,” and, more enjoyably, at friends’ houses. After studying a couple years at Cleveland State University, Vincent enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. He did an externship at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where most everything was eye-opening, from the number of diners served (“a s—load of people”) to the kitchen staff, including Jamie Shannon, who since has died.
“The chefs were maybe the scariest people I’ve ever met. But also kind and patient,” Vincent said. He recalls being chewed out by Shannon for some misdeed. “He said to me, ‘Do you know how big my world is?’ He was telling me I need to use my brain, not use him as a crutch. That statement was really influential.”
Vincent did a stage at Arzak in San Sebastian and then traveled around Spain for several months. In Portland, Maine, he worked at Fore Street, where the chef-partner and James Beard Award-winner, Sam Hayward, became a significant influence.
“Sam’s like a father figure,” Vincent said. “A great guy, patient, and one of the best cooks I’ve ever met. And he’s simple — unadorned, no drizzled sauces. At Arzak it was, ‘Think outside the box.’ What I learned was, you an always try something new — there is a box to think outside of. But at Fore Street, I learned you need to cook good food.”
Vincent spent four years as sous chef at Lula Cafe, a famed Chicago spot that serves from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week — “Brain exercise,” Vincent said. He left in 2009 to become the opening chef at Nightwood, in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. As head chef, he didn’t make things any easier on himself.
“When we first opened Nightwood, we literally crimpled up yesterday’s menu every day,” he said of the concept of constantly creating the food anew. When he and his wife had a baby girl two years ago, Vincent slowed the pace slightly.
“We still look at the menu every day, try to make it better every day.”
Last summer, Vincent had his first taste of glory in Aspen, being crowned (literally) as “King of Porc” at the Grand Cochon pig-cooking competition during the Food & Wine weekend. Vincent won’t be defending his title.
“Pork isn’t my specialty,” he said. “I love it. But I treat it like any other ingredient. To be honest, after Cochon, after making all those pork dishes, I ate vegetarian for most of the summer.”
Vincent looks like a Phish fan — shaggy, easy smile and, at the “Wines of Spain” party Thursday night, dressed most casually. Though the food he makes is many notches above concert parking lot fare, it is grounded in simplicity. A sample menu at Nightwood features a spaghetti-and-meatballs dish (with veal meatballs and caramelized tomato) and a cheeseburger (two patties, eight-year cheddar).
“I think a good way to describe the food is, always delicious, sometimes pretty, with a side of interesting,” he said. “We don’t do a lot of technology. You take common ingredients and combine them in interesting ways.”
Vincent loves that he has joined the company of Symon and Sawyer, the other two Clevelanders in the club of best new chefs and people he admires enormously. And he likes that a guy like him fits with the current thinking behind the best new chefs.
“Dana Cowin (the Food & Wine editor) will say 15 years ago it was all French food and white tablecloths,” Vincent said. “Now it’s just, ‘Go for delicious.’”
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