Cheftell: Chef and Restaurant Owner Alex Washut

Interview with Alex Washut of Jake’s Restaurant Northampton on January 7, 2013.

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The comforting breakfast aroma will wake up anyones taste buds from the moment you walk into the Jake’s.  It is no surprise that there is often a line of locals waiting out side for their eggs benedict and superior pancake stacks. Jake’s offers a wide variety of classic breakfast foods like eggs and pancakes, but they also serve up delicious sandwiches and salads for lunch.

New Owners Alex Washut and Chris Ware recently re-opened the iconic Jake’s of Northampton in November of 2011.  I talked to chef and owner Alex Washut, a Culinary Institute Graduate, about his experience in the culinary field as well as his decision to buy his childhood hangout and revive the menu with fresh, local ingredients.

L: Have you always had a passion for culinary arts or was it something you never expected to pursue as a career?

A: Yeah I actually did. Food was always a really big part of my family growing up and I can remember at a very early age watching my grandfather cooking predominantly Italian.

I started working in culinary pretty early, right out of high school, washing dishes and I just really enjoyed the energy of a restaurant. It fueled the fire for me to keep going with it.

L: Where did you learn to cook? I understand you went to the Culinary Institute of America.

A: Yes. I wasn’t sure I was going to at first. When I started cooking in the restaurant you meet a lot of people who haven’t gone and a lot of people who have. The old school way is not to go so I was kind of sure I wasn’t going to need that. I could just learn on the job. There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. It’s great. It’s real life experience but I found in my early twenties I sort of plateau-ed for as much as I could really take. I made the mistake of becoming the chef too early.  At twenty-three I got my first chef job and I realized I didn’t know anything or as much as I wanted to know. So instead of being taught by the chefs in front of me I decided to go to culinary school, The Culinary Institute of America.

L: That’s where I am going next summer!

A: That’s great! I highly support it. It was a great experience. There’s so much to be had there. The people you meet and the opportunities that come to you – take advantage of them.

I did a twenty-one month program, which is their standard associate program. From there it opened up a lot of doors for me. I think I was fortunate (I would recommend) to get a lot of experience before culinary school – on the job. That really allowed me to go further in the school when I was there.

L: Have you always enjoyed working in the food industry? At any point was it so stressful that you weren’t sure you wanted to continue?

A: I mean everyday is stressful. That’s sort of what I enjoy about this business.  It’s not sitting behind a desk.  I’ve been doing this for twelve years now and I’ll revert back to what I was saying that I’m really glad I got the five years of experience working on the line, working in kitchens, working my way up before I went to school. When I went to school there were a lot of kids who didn’t have a lot of experience and they were kind of in shock at what the industry really is.  I think its gets glossed over a bit on TV and the popularity in society now, which is great. It’s great for our profession. It’s a great thing for restaurants, but in the end it’s hard work that takes practice and dedication and training. All those things, like any good career, take sacrifice.  I’ve had some really bad days on the job where I didn’t know what I was doing anymore and I was confused.  I’ve had some amazing days on the job where I’m on cloud nine and thankfully I’ve had more amazing days on the job than bad days. I’m really content with this business. I’m really glad I stuck with it.

L: What is the most rewarding part of working in the food industry for you?

A: It’s all about the customers. What I love about cooking in a restaurant, especially smaller restaurants, is that you can really connect with your customers. When people go out to dinner or lunch or breakfast, whatever meal it is, they are going away for an hour of their time to just sort of forget about things and just enjoy the whole experience of sitting down and eating.  To put a smile on someone’s face through food, which is so universal, is probably the best feeling I get from cooking. And just letting people enjoy that one-hour of their day is the best feeling as well.

L: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the food industry?

A: Well, it’s not cooking! It’s not. It’s cooking good food and once you get it you’ve got it and you always improve, which is the greatest part about this profession because you can always get better.  The hardest thing is dealing with people. It’s not easy for us folks (cooks/chefs) is to deal with people.  That’s why we often are in the back [he laughs], but to have those personal communication skills, to work with your co-workers, to work with customers – and from my point of view as a new owner, it’s managing. Food is easy in the grand scheme.

L: How many restaurants have you worked at throughout your years in the food industry?

A: Total restaurants? Hum let’s see. I worked at Northampton Brewery (that was my first job washing dishes), I worked at four restaurants on Martha’s Vinyard, I worked in New Orleans, two restaurants in New York, a restaurant in Los Angeles… so nine!

L: Wow! That’s a lot! Were they all different styles of cooking?

A: Yeah they were all pretty varied. Northampton Brew Pub is a pub but it’s volume.  We would do fifteen-hundred people in a day.  You can’t really teach volume. You have to experience how to cook in quantity. It is a really hard thing to do.  Whereas, when I was on the Vinyard I cooked in much smaller settings.  I cooked in farm-to-table restaurants, I cooked at a fry shack and I did a French-Thai fusion restaurant. I moved to New Orleans to do Creole Cajun cuisine, which has its roots in French and also Italian.  In New York, I worked in an Italian restaurant and I also worked in an American-style restaurant with South American influences in it. In California, I worked in classic French-California cuisine. So they are all varied, but technique is universal.  Going to school really helped me with my technique, classic French technique.  That’s what I wanted. Classic sauce and stock making, knife cuts – bare bones cooking techniques. How to sauté, how to braise, how to roast properly. That’s really what I went for and got.  It’s a wonderful foundation to stand on and you can just go with it.  You can adapt it to any place you go to and know that your doing this correctly and not cutting corners.  There’s a right way to make things and if you understand that it sets you apart from everyone else.

L: What would you describe your cooking style as because you have training in Classical French cooking but so much other experience?

A: I picked up a lot in New Orleans.  It’s a cuisine I love.  I love Cajun cuisine. So I certainly have a lot of those flavors in my repertoire.  I was raised Italian and I just love Italian food – and that’s what I really loved about Cajun cuisine is it really is a perfect blend of French and Italian. Italian is a really big influence that no one really knows about. I think that’s really contributed the most.  I could have the same techniques of French cooking, the same flavor profiles of Italian – things sort of mesh together – as well as bringing in that country, Creole aspect and the Caribbean aspect of it. So I think that’s my biggest thing.  And then there’s the farm-to-table. Working, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. So not being over complicated with your dishes. Minimizing the ingredient count in the dishes I think is important. If you’re eating and you have no idea what your eating it’s like twenty different things in this with garnishes and I think it loses the whole point. So, I’m a minimalist I guess.  Keep it simple, flavorful food.

L: Was your externship for the CIA in New Orleans?

A: Yeah it was.  I knew exactly where I wanted to go to for my externship.  It was an unapproved site, so I had to get it approved.  It wasn’t on the list of externships. I was down there for six months and it was just everything I wanted it to be.

L: That’s great! I’m already so excited thinking of places to go.

A: That’s great! You know a lot of my classmates had no idea where they wanted to go.  They [the school] have job fairs that come and they’re all hotels and bigger restaurants and they [classmates] just go. And they hated it! They end up picking herbs all day or stuck in the corner peeling potatoes – it’s terrible, you’re not learning anything! Find a small restaurant where you can be part of a team; you can carve a little corner out for yourself and do it.  Don’t go to a hotel.  I had so many friends who went to hotels in Las Vegas and really they just picked parsley all day. It’s a terrible 12 hours! [He laughs.]  I got to work on a line and cook real food. I worked at a top restaurant in New Orleans; it was a great experience. I learned so much.

One thing I wished I did – you have the option after your externship to delay your return.  You can really delay it as long as you want.  I was really happy in New Orleans. I was in a really great restaurant. I contemplated staying there but I didn’t.  I came back because I wanted to be with my same class.  In the end, I wish I did stay there for a little bit longer.  Not a big deal.  Also, I was offered to be a teacher’s assistant at the Italian restaurant [at the CIA] and I didn’t take it.  I wished I did.  Really really good hands on experience from a really great chef and you actually get mediocre pay for it (after you graduate – it’s a one year commitment). If it ever comes up, really give it some thought because it could point you in a really interesting direction in the end after working under the chef.  A lot more doors can open for you in places you typically don’t think are possible. I wish someone had told me that while I was there but it all worked out. But what could have happened? So just keep your options open.

L: Do you have a food philosophy?  Do you ever change from your traditions if a new food trend emerges? Do you cater to the trends?

A: Trends are important.  They’re definitely good to keep an eye on and to be aware of.  But as far as my food philosophy goes – I don’t like to let things go to waste.  That’s my professional food philosophy. Waste not want not and that’s a great philosophy in cooking.  Full product utilization of what you’re bringing in. Any full chickens we’re breaking down and making stock out of the bones, roasting off the chicken breast, searing off the meat – just using everything that’s available.  It’s respect for the food that you’re getting. So that’s my philosophy on it professionally.  Another philosophy is that it has to taste good!

L: So how did you get here to be the chef and owner of Jake’s? You recently re-opened.

A: Yeah, Jake’s has been around since the late seventies. It has seen a couple hands but only a few.  I was in New York City working there (2011) and I actually got a phone call from my mother [he laughs] because I used to come here all the time growing up.  This was my favorite spot. She happened to mention a for sale sign and I went from there.  A week later I moved back.

L: You grew up around here right?

A: Yes I was born and raised in Florence, MA. So I’ve always been here.  I moved away when I was in my early twenties to travel around.  I really didn’t plan on coming back anytime soon but I saw the opportunity and I just went for it.  I guess that’s just what you have to do.

L: Did you decide to keep the name Jake’s because it’s an establishment here?

A: I couldn’t imagine this spot being anything but Jake’s.  We didn’t think to change the name – because I mean we’re certainly doing our own thing, we’re not the old Jake’s by any means and that’s just our thing and that’s great – but, to not call it Jake’s, I think would be weird for some people.  I think it would make the original customers uneasy. So we tried to keep the name Jake’s, the soul of Jake’s, alive.

L: So when exactly did Jake’s re-open?

A: November 2, 2011 was our opening day. We spent about three months renovating and cleaning up part of it.  It needed a good scrub down. [He laughs].

L: Did you redo the menu?

A: Yes.  The menu is one-hundred percent new.  We’ve probably changed it seven times since our opening. It’s kind of cool to be able to do that.  If it’s working it’s working but if it’s not just change it and keep it fresh. Use what’s in season.

L: Yes, I noticed that you use a lot of fresh and local products in your restaurant.

A: Yeah it’s important for us. We work with a lot of farms. We’re spoiled in this area.  There’s an abundance of awareness of local food and its really easy for restaurants to get in sync with. It’s all there.  There are farms, markets, and CSAs.  It’s all there. You just have to put a little effort in.  And cost wise you’re doing yourself a favor by buying from the farms. It’s a better price. You’re getting a better ingredient.  And you’re keeping the money in the community.  It’s full circle.  The people you’re buying the food from will come in and spend money back in the restaurant.  So it just keeps going.  It’s important for the community.

L: I think it is important too, but I think a lot of people think when you buy locally it is more expensive.  It doesn’t have to be though.

A: It doesn’t have to be.  It really doesn’t. That’s a big misnomer.  I think it’s getting better.  People are more aware that it can be on the same level as going to Stop and Shop or wherever.

L: With the non-stop lifestyle in the culinary field do you feel like you have enough time outside of work?

A: No! [He laughs.] No, not at all! Was that too quick of an answer?

L: That’s what I expected!

A: Yeah I mean it’s a lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be.  In the beginning though it is. If you really want to separate from the pack you have to give it everything you got. 80+ hour work-weeks are as common as the sun rising.  I mean it just is. When we first opened me and my business partner Chris, we worked 213 days straight, 15+ hour days, just to get it off the ground. Now we’re not. Now we’re taking a day off a week but every job I’ve had has always been a six-day week. But not to say it should be. I’m now trying find that balance between my personal life and my professional life – that’s really important for longevity to not go crazy and to be burnt out from this.  You can get burnt out so quick so it’s important to find that balance because you can.  You just have to want it and I guess I just didn’t want it.  I just didn’t have time.  I was really into what I was doing.

L: I think that’s how a lot of people in this profession are.  It seems to be the culture of it.

A: It is.  It really can suck you in.  Restaurants are – this is a really terrible thing to say but – restaurants are one of those businesses that are really good at just sucking the life out of employees.  Really just squeezing everything out of everyone.  It needs to be.  Everything just costs too much.  The overhead is too much – as an owner.  It just costs too much for everything.  When we talk about profit we’re talking about pennies on a dollar. That’s why it’s important to use all the food you are given, to really maximize your employees’ efficiency – make efficiency part of the everyday terminology.

So, in turn that can burn out some employees. I’ve been in a lot of sous chef positions (the second in command to the chef) and the chef relies heavily on the sous chef to really control the line, control the staff, the production of the food whereas a chef really focuses on recipe development, costs, menus and whatnot.  The paperwork, the ugly side, of cooking.  So that can be a big burden for a sous chef, usually younger in their twenties, and to be working 12+ hour days, 6 days a week it can absorb a lot of your time. But I guess if you’re happy at the end of the day it doesn’t matter.

L: How are you able to keep your prices so reasonable? Buying locally?

A: Yeah I mean that’s part of it. It’s all about number crunching. It’s controlled – you have to have control of the products.  It starts from the very beginning – as soon as the food comes in. Inspecting every order that comes in and making sure you’re getting the best quality ingredient.  But you know a lot of times they’ll send you from the larger wholesalers.  It’s just being packed away in a warehouse and loaded on a truck in the morning – they’ll send you rotten produce and this and that. You really have to make sure you’re getting your moneys worth.  And keep on top of your prices too because they’re really good at ticking up the prices overtime.  Make sure you know how much things are costing.  Control your prep – having standardized recipes.  Making sure everything is at a specific price – that’s going to work for you in the end.

It’s also about portioning things – weighing things out.  Not just making it a handful or a scoopful but 4 oz. or 1 cup, really keeping things on lock down.  Then when you get to the actual cooking of it making sure the consistency of the food is being cooked the same way every single time. And that all adds up to your plate cost and how much it’s costing me to produce this one plate of food. Putting the time into cost out every plate – one slice of tomato is 9¢, one leaf of lettuce is 5¢ – every little detail of it needs to be costed out.  It’s really a pain in the butt and it takes a lot of time.

It’s really time consuming but in the end it will ensure that I’m charging x amount, it’s costing x amount, I’m making this and then if you’re fair, which I think everyone should be but not too many people are, you don’t have to gouge your costumers.  You can give it at a reasonable price because you know how much it’s costing you and you know your making this much on it.  You only need to make so much to keep it all going and have a profit.  Just to be honest about it we have good prices because we know what we’re spending on it and we want return customers.  We’re not going to jack up the prices just because – it just doesn’t make sense in the long run.  Where a lot of places can be more expensive – you go less often.  You just want to be reasonable and still offer a good product.  So go for volume.  I would rather have more people in the restaurant than fewer.

L: It’s packed all the time!

A: Well, we are very thankful for that!

L: So, lastly what advice would you give to someone who wanted to go to culinary school or pursue a career in this field?

A: I guess the best advice is to be as honest with yourself as possible.  Really know what you want as early as possible and what sacrifices you are really willing to make. They are so many different routes.  Restaurants are just one slice of the pie, they’re so many other things – being a personal chef, or being a nutritionist, or working in hotels…they are so many different things to do with a culinary arts degree. So just be honest with yourself what do you really want to do? What balance do you want to find in life between working? Is work going to be your life? If so fine but make sure you’re happy doing it.  And if you finally figure out what you want to do attack it. Go for it 100%. Don’t hold back.  Especially so many opportunities can arise going to culinary school.  Really explore them.  You’re paying to be there – a lot of money – so you should really use it because it’s all there.  You’re an hour and a half train ride from New York City. You can easily go – you should be going to New York City, into the trends.

If you have free time on the weekends or anything you should really get down to New York start knocking on some doors of restaurants – I’m a culinary school kid I go to the CIA. They see a thousand of us everyday – I want to come in and work for free.  I just want to learn. It’s as simple as that.  They’re like absolutely. And if you have something to show them and kind of hold your own a little bit that’s great and I think that’s so important.  You can’t pay for that experience.  If you get good at a restaurant maybe after school you’ll end up working there.  Really just use it. The chefs are amazing, there’s so much knowledge there. Pick their brains.  Ask questions. Be proactive. Volunteer.  There’s a lot of volunteer work to be done in that school. It was the best decision I ever made!

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Vegetarian Eggs Benedict

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Banana Chocolate Chip Pancake

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Fresh Side of Fruit

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Egg Sandwich with spinach, shallots, cheddar and a side of vegetarian sausage

Next time your looking for a satisfying breakfast or lunch with fresh, local ingredients stop by Jake’s Restaurant on 17 King Street Northampton, MA or for more information on Alex Washut, Chris Ware and the re-opening of Jake’s in Northampton check out their website and this story