Most true foodies can agree that they will follow a good chef to just about any kitchen they move to. California native Chef Jesse Olguin devotes his career perfecting his craft, and now with his hooks firmly in New York’s bustling restaurant industry, he is building up that loyal following that every chef dreams of.
Currently the Executive Chef at The Winslow in Manhattan’s trendy East Village, Jesse is also taking on more management roles at the likes of hot spots like Black Swan in Brooklyn, and still manages to find time to breath. We talked with Chef Jesse about his inspirations and passion for the culinary arts, how he balances a bi-coastal relationship with his children and more in UrbLife.com’s Slice of Life segment.
How did you become a chef and what inspired you to take this as a career?
Jesse Olguin: I did my first job when I was 14 at a steak place called Steak & Hoagies. It was a Philly cheesesteak restaurant on the West coast. We were pretty poor, so I started working at the restaurant and learned that I could take food home to feed my sister and my mom. I fell in love with it ever since – I’ve never done anything else
What culinary schools did you attend?
JO: I went to R.O.P. in San Diego and Grossmont College, they had a culinary program.
From there what was the first professional job that you had?
JO: From there I went to a place called Capistrano’s inside the Embassy Suites in Oxnard, California. They don’t have unions over there like they do here [in New York], so it was like a real restaurant environment. I started doing dishwashing, and I moved into a salad / cook position, and I was there for about a year and a half before I moved to San Diego. I moved to San Diego and worked professionally with the Cohn Restaurant Group as a cook for several years where I met Hanis Cavin, who is like my chef mentor. I followed him around a couple of restaurants where I eventually took over my own chef position.
One of my first chef jobs I was an executive chef and took over Trattoria La Bocca. I was a chef there for three or four years. I helped open the House of Blues, and I did some consulting in San Diego. By the time I was in San Diego I had already been doing it for ten years and then I got bored. In 2006 I moved to New York.
At this point in time what is your title and what are your duties in which you perform as a chef?
JO: My title is Executive Chef here [at The Winslow]and I’m in charge of the menu, so seasonally changing it. I’m responsible for all the hiring, firing, ordering. There’s nobody above me besides the owners.
When you say you change the menu seasonally, what are things that inspire you to change it each season?
JO: Well in New York I worked with David Waltuck, former chef/owner of Chantrelle, I worked with Alain Ducasse of Benoit New York, his most famous restaurant in Benoit in France. I worked with Ark Restaurants, which is a huge company and that was always super fine dining, so I think that experience with the type of food we did there, I kind of used that to make it into a gastropub style food.
Sometimes I go to the farmer’s market to get ideas and inspiration about what I’m gonna use. I eat out at least once a week to keep creative because there’s no one willing to teach. I teach myself with tasting menus and what not. Chefs aren’t willing to teach other chefs anymore except myself. In my spare time I’m researching ideas inspiring some other chefs equally.
I didn’t grow up in a seasonal town. California has all seasons at the fingertips, that’s why its nice to cook there, but NYC is difficult because people want winter warming soups and stews when it’s cold out. So we need to accommodate for that, that’s why I go and hang out at farmer’s markets. I get produce direct or source it through a company I already work with.
Places like The Winslow have amazing food, people just sometimes forget that because it’s a “bar”, but we do high quality Charcuteries, homemade sausage, homemade buns for the burgers and country ham. We make out own sauerkraut. Were doing some nice things. Sometimes people might assume were opening a can and were not.
What are some of your other favorite restaurants in New York?
JO: I really enjoy Dell’anima, it’s on Jane and 8th in the city. I think Mario Batali is involved with it, that’s great Italian. My experience from the restaurant in San Diego is Italian, so to eat Italian food that you would enjoy if you were in Italy and not Americanized is really enjoyable for me. I also like Casa Mono for Spanish tapas near Union Square.
Have you been able to build up a consistent clientele at The Winslow that come back just for your food?
JO: Well the place is run more like a bar and not a restaurant, so the people who do eat here enjoy it. We’ve had a lot of great reviews on Yelp. I think most of the people who do come are regulars already.
And they just get the added bonus of the food being fantastic.
JO: Right. So they’re like “I’m a regular and I eat here often”. I enjoy seeing people come back and ordering the same thing again. We just opened for lunch so people are coming and tasting and everybody is enjoying what they are having.
What would you say to a young chef who wants to follow in your footsteps? What pieces of advice would you give them?
JO: Take your time [laughs]. A lot of kids coming out of college want to try to rush to be a chef and they fail. I cooked for five years before I went to school so I knew what I was getting into. Take your time, be a cook first, get it down, then move on and build on it.
Who have been some of your biggest inspiration or mentors?
JO: Hanis Cavin from San Diego. David Waltuck from New York – he was the chef of Chanterelle that I got the pleasure to work with when I was at Robert. Ed Brown [Ed’s Chowder House], who I had a chance to work with – he had a Michelin star restaurant on 81st [Eighty One] mostly for the Pacific Orient I guess, Pacific Rim so his food is very interesting. I haven’t really met a lot of chefs in New York who are kind of high-profile.
When you are heading up a restaurant does it give you much time for a personal life? If so, how do you balance it out and keep your sanity?
JO: I’ve always been a believer people having a life, so when I take over a restaurant I focus on creating an environment where I can have a life and still be successful running it. No matter where I’m at, everyone in my kitchen only works five days, two days off together, and you don’t work more than ten hours a day. When I was at other places, our usual work day was 12 to 15 hours. Once you get past 15 hours you’re not productive, so I’d rather be able to produce both in my work life and personal life so neither one suffers.
Are you married? Do you have kids?
JO: I have three children. I have a daughter that just turned 18. They all live in California, and she’s coming out to visit me in November. And I’m not married. My kids are all three years apart: 12, 15 and 18. We have a relationship through social media, and that works very well for me.
What do you want people to know most about you at this point of your career as a man, as a chef, and as a man who has a vision for the future?
JO: People assume that getting to where I’m at is easy, and it’s not. For the last ten years it’s been a struggle to balance life and relationships. It’s difficult to have a girlfriend when you’re a chef, because you work so many hours. My vision with my food is I want to cook something I would cook at home and have it be just as healthy and taste as good. I want people to come here and say “Chef Jesse cooked for me” even if it wasn’t a restaurant setting. I do the things I do because I love it. I’m not chasing stars.
Follow Chef Jesse Olguin on Twitter @ChefJesseOlguin