Celebrity Skin: Jesse Schenker - The Kitchens Ink

Published: 14 August, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 215, August, 2012

Start among the grease and burgers in the back of a McDonald’s, take a detour through Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, and finish at a restaurant in New York City’s trendy West Village, and you’ve got 29-year-old chef, Jesse Schenker’s, career path in a nutshell. Suffice it to say, he’s all kinds of interesting…

When I was super little, I would come home from school and watch Great Chefs, Great Cities on PBS – before The Food Network – while all the other kids were out building forts or riding dirt bikes,” says Schenker when asked about the roots of his love affair with food. “It was completely instinctual, it was beyond my control.

“When my family used to go to fast, casual restaurants like T.G.I. Friday’s, I liked watching the flames flare up in the kitchen and seeing the dudes with burns on their arms. I wanted that. During holiday time, most little boys wanted action figures – I wanted kitchen knives. I would marinate hot dogs with teriyaki sauce and make crazy concoctions with duck sauce, soy sauce and mustard at Chinese restaurants… I just knew.”

And then there was his great grandmother, perhaps the one who’s to blame for helping spark Schenker’s uncanny passion for and dedication to food that, years down the line, have resulted in him getting inked with everything from a knife to caul fat.

“When I was very young, my Nana Mae would babysit me, and I remember being intrigued by how she would hold a paring knife to cut slices out of an apple. I also remember this plastic placemat I had as a kid that I was given to help chop vegetables for stews and soups that my grandmother would be making.”

From Big Macs to French cuisine

Taking his first ever job in a kitchen (aged 15 at the local McDonald’s), Schenker was quite the kitchen superstar, even in a fast food environment.
“I didn’t have a [driver’s] license, my parents used to drop me off to work. Even then I tried to be the fastest and the best at making burgers. I remember this one time, a regional manager came through and told us we had the fastest drive-through in the county!”

Attending culinary school was all part of the natural progression, but admittedly, that’s not where most of Schenker’s knowledge came from.
“Most of what I learned was from Oliver Saucey at Café Maxx,” he admits. “At the time, it was the highest rated Zagat restaurant in Broward County, Florida. During that time I was attending culinary school in the morning, had an hour break, then had to be at high school for two hours, then to Maxx’s by 3pm. When I was 17, they officially hired me to the hotline – it took me two months of busting my ass.”

But Florida wasn’t meant to be long-term for Schenker, so he moved to New York, landing a sweet gig with one of the world’s most infamous chefs, rising steadily ever since. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at The London, a boutique hotel in the heart of NYC, “was the first job I took when I moved to New York… it was great. Gordon Ramsay obviously has a huge empire, so it’s not like I saw him all the time. I don’t think he’s as mean as people say he is, but he is a perfectionist. I learned a lot there: discipline, consistency, cleanliness, organization and the importance of all that.”

When it came to making his childhood dream come true, Schenker decided to stay in New York, choosing the West Village as the home for his first restaurant, Recette, because of his love for the area. “When I visited as a kid and experienced the neighborhood – the brownstones, the tree-lined streets – I just loved it there. My goal growing up was to learn, eat, read a million cookbooks, and take in all the knowledge I could to develop my own style. I’m still the same way. I’m always trying to figure out what everyone’s doing. Not necessarily reinventing, but creating a hybrid style – Modern American.”

Although, pursuing one’s dreams is never without hardship. “Opening the restaurant was the hardest thing I ever did, hands down. The time and dedication could destroy a person. I’m lucky I had my father and my wife who were as dedicated as I was. I did my research and happened to raise money in the middle of an economic downfall. I thought of every angle, everything I ever experienced in a restaurant – lighting, bathrooms, storage, bev naps – every detail. The one aspect that was completely foreign to me was all of the back office work.

“As far as the name goes, a close friend of mine, Andre, had studied in Paris and spoke fluent French. I called him asking for one word in French, because that’s the techniques we employ, that was related to food. He came back with ‘recette’ [recipe]. I was sold.”

Permanent Food

“On my left forearm, I have a crépinette, a French dish which is meat wrapped in caul fat,” Schenker shows, starting the official tour of his ink. “I like the look of the caul fat, it’s like netting, so as a chef loving food and loving fat, I just went there. And I got a Japanese chef’s knife – a Japanese slicer, my favorite knife, it represents my dedication to the craft – also on my left arm, and on my right shoulder I have a T-bone steak with a skewered olive and tomato.

“I also have a demon and a skull and some Pearl Jam lyrics and their logo… I’m a big fan. On the inside of my forearm, I have the ‘I’m Still Alive’ logo from Pearl Jam; my favourite song from my favourite band. I have the song ‘Indifference’ on my whole left thigh; also really love that song. Oh, and on my wrist I have ‘All or None’, another Pearl Jam title as well as how I live my life. I have some random stuff on my chest and left arm. They are creatures I got when I was a kid, and there’s also fire and ice going on around my elbow.”

The one closest to his heart, however, is one of the smallest and can be found on his right arm: “‘Eddie’, my son’s name. He’s named after Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam. [Why are we not surprised?!] My son is my world. He is everything to me.”

As a firm believer in the idea that a tattoo collection cannot be stopped after just one, Schenker says, “anyone will tell you they are addictive. Once you get one, you think you are done, then you just get another. I’m always itching for more, but I can’t find the time. I have no idea what I would get.”

Perhaps the ingredients he claims he wouldn’t be able to live without – “salt and lemon; white truffles are so overrated” – would make for the perfect addition. Or maybe his favorite Recette dish to-date – cod fritters – would be the logical way to go. “They are crispy outside and then you get the spice of the lamb ragout that comes with them… when you hear about it you don’t think it would be good, but when you eat it, the umami, the richness – just delicious. Every time I take a bite, I think ‘Damn, that was a good idea!’”

Something that doesn’t happen very easily or too often, as Schenker admits that all the accolades and successes only serve to add pressure to his perfectionist tendencies. “I’m my own biggest critic, I can always find something wrong, no matter how much praise I get.” Which is not helped by the fact that Schenker likes to continuously experiment and is always pushing himself to get more creative, always striving to be better and better. Case in point, adding a menu item that is just as delicious as it is frightening.

“We do a spaghetti dish, which is made with our house made pasta – it causes me anxiety because when it is right and all the components come together, it is one of the best dishes on the menu, but with season changes like the humidity, the dough can go wrong… it can be finicky.”

A lover of food and music – “[If I had to stop cooking] I’d be a drummer in a rock band because I love music and I play the drums” – Jesse Schenker’s response to the question of who he’d love to spend the day cooking with is both perfect and indicative of why this young chef really is rather brilliant: “Bob Dylan. We’d make grilled cheese and espressos.”

Failed food experiment

“This one seaweed dish I tried… I wanted to do different textures of seaweed with an oyster cream. Conceptually, it was good, but in reality, it looked like baby vomit. It was awkward and didn’t work.”

Smart advice

“The best advice I received early on was when I was told by a chef I worked for to shut my mouth, keep my head down, work as hard as I could, and one day I would be running my own restaurant.”

Not so smart advice

“For me, the worst advice I was given, because I was so young when I got into the industry, was to get out while I still could, that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. That was the worst thing I could hear because I knew I wanted it.”

Recette

328 West 12th Street
New York, NY 10014
United States

+01 (212) 414 3000
www.recettenyc.com

Credits

Text & Photography: Barbara Pavone

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