Reporting Sara Pelissero
The Twin Cities are blessed when it comes to talent in the kitchen. The culinary minds at the helm of our favorite restaurants receive critical acclaim and top honors from food enthusiasts and reviewers, alike. But who are the people behind the chef’s coat? Our Chef’s Profile aims to find out.
You can take the chef off the line, but you can’t take the line cook out of the chef.
Butcher and the Boar’s Jack Riebel is in the midst of celebrating 30 years of cooking and while he’s worked just about every position over the course of his career – breakfast cook, smoothie maker, salad cook, executive chef – he said working the line is where he loves to be. It’s what reminds him why he got into this crazy business in the first place.
Not that he’s complaining but with a highly successful restaurant, another project in the works and a Best Chef Midwest nomination under his belt, there’s not a whole lot of time for Chef Jack to work said line.
The last year has certainly been a milestone to his three decades in the kitchen. Butcher and the Boar earned Star Tribune’s title of Restaurant of the Year, landed on several lists touting the establishment as one of the country’s best and both the restaurant and its chef received plenty of attention from the James Beard Foundation.
Still, you wouldn’t know it in talking with Chef Jack — the man who says when it comes down to it, he’s more excited by the work of his team than individual awards. And while he’s truly honored to be recognized for all the hard work he’s put in over the years, at the core, he’s just doing what he loves — and wouldn’t imagine it any other way.
We sat down to chat with the chef about when it all began.
How old were you when you began cooking?
At my first actual job cooking for pay, I was 16 years old, as a breakfast cook. That’s where I got my 30 years from – I turn 46 this year. Last year marked 30 years of cooking.
Do you ever miss cooking breakfast?
It’s funny that you should say that because a lot of people question, like, short-order cooks. But to me, it’s the hardest, it’s where you learn how to be a good line cook. You have to be really organized, you have to be on top of things, you have to be fast and you’re actually cooking some pretty critical things – egg cookery can be challenging but also you’re trying to time your pancakes and your toast and everything else.
My opinion is, if guys come in looking for jobs and they’re like, ‘Well, I cooked breakfast for two years,’ it’s like, ‘hired.’ Can you make 600 eggs the right way every Sunday? Then you can work for me. But people don’t really think about it like that. So yes I do – ultimately line cooking is a blast, it’s why I love to cook. It’s an adrenaline rush, it’s fun and obviously, when you get to the level that I’m at today, there’s a lot more at play. You’re doing administrative work, you’re doing all these different things. At the end of the day, you don’t always get the time out to cook as much. So I take advantage of cooking at home for that reason. Some of my favorite days are when, you know, ‘Chef, can you cover a station on the line tonight?’ I mean, sign me up. I’m doing that today, actually.
Did you come from a family of cooks?
Well, you know it’s ironic and I say this with a ‘Hey mom, I love you,’ but my mom was maybe not the best cook but you know, the five things that she maybe did cook were really good. But she was a very experimental cook. Growing up in my house also included you having to cook. You didn’t have to cook or do dishes in the same day but you had to do one or the other. So two days a week, I would usually cook some horrid thing. If it wasn’t breakfast for dinner, it’d be some horrid thing. So the joke is, she suffered through a lot of bad food to make really good food.
When did you know you wanted to go into the culinary world?
Yeah, I don’t know. How do you ever really know? You know, when you’re young and you’re in kitchens, it’s really kind of exciting. It’s really fun just to see the process and the energy and to be near the creativity. There’s a lot of things that were really appealing. I think once I found a place that had something I liked to do, I just kind of went with it. I wasn’t a very good student, so I ended up not doing very well in school, although I did make it to culinary school.
What inspires your cooking? What is it about being a chef that motivates you?
I take inspiration from everything. If I were to give you a fair assessment, I’m a very tactile person. I don’t really work well with a blank piece of paper. I need to go to the market and smell it, taste it. I like to travel all over the world and taste different cuisine, taste different cultures and I think it’s the time that you spend away from what you do day-to-day that allow you to step into something else.
For me, I take that opportunity to take in different things, so I like to read a lot. I’m an avid cookbook collector. I probably have about 600 cookbooks. I like them old, new, that’s what I read. I also really like cultures, I like to travel. I really have a strong affinity for the Vietnamese food that’s in the Twin Cities – I think it’s one of the most understated. We have great pho. You can go all over the country but it’s really good here. I love Thai cuisine, so I like things that are outside my day-to-day box. I want to eat and experience different cultures, different foods and use that as inspiration for my own cooking.
In addition to that, I’m a huge jazz music fan. I love jazz music. So I think creativity ebbs and flows – you don’t just turn it on. It’s a pursuit, in pursuit of creating things, creative ideas will come to you. Ultimately, I think, when you’re a young kid like me and you drop out of high school and you become a very much working kid, 16, you know — both my parents are very, very educated, everybody in my family went to college except for me. My mom has accomplished a ton in her life so my ultimate goal was that I needed to achieve as much as I could. So today, you know, knock on wood, I feel like I’ve arrived, if that makes sense.
Do you have a go-to cookbook?
Gosh, you know, that’s really funny. So the very first cookbook I got was the first real, kind of, color-picture, coffee-table star chef cookbook. It was 19- it’s out of print now but I think it was published in 1980 or 1982, called “New American Classics” by Jeremiah Tower. By that time, he just finished being the chef at Chez Panisse and had just opened up his own restaurant, Stars. Today, I can still reference that book because what he was doing still has relevancy, even 33 years later. That’s one of my go-to’s.
I gotta be honest, I think “Joy of Cooking” – everyone says to me, ‘What’s the first book I should get?’ and I always say to them, “Joy of Cooking” and they think I’m crazy but what I like about it is that if I need a base line recipe for a simple biscuit, I can go there and get something that works and I can translate it if I want but I know it’s going to work when I make it. So I can always pass that off to a cook if I need something on the fly. It sounds crazy, but after 75 years of testing every recipe, more than once, it works well. The thing with a lot of star chef cookbooks is, they’re great, but the recipes aren’t always complete, the methods aren’t and those cookbooks aren’t for everybody. Because you have to be able, no pun intended, to read between the lines.
Have you ever thought about writing your own cookbook?
A lot of people tell me I should do that. It might be fun, you know, let’s see where it goes. Right now, I’m plenty busy but I guess the idea of it is kind of interesting.
Congratulations on the James Beard Award nomination, by the way. I hear you were walking your dog with your wife when you found out? What was your initial reaction?
Yeah, well my phone was just buzzing and buzzing and buzzing and I try to take an hour and a half every morning to myself – and that hour and a half is usually between like 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. to walk the dogs, ride my bike, whatever I need to do to get ready for the day. And so we’re walking the dogs and I generally try to ignore my phone for that period of time but after like four or five text alerts, I opened it up and there was all these congratulation notices. Pretty cool. I feel really lucky to … I’ve been working in this town for a long time and I’ve worked in other cities but I’ve never lived anywhere else and I think it’s really cool that I have this spectrum of friends that are really broad in all areas of the industry. It’s really cool to get recognition for your 30 years of hard cooking. It’s kind of the ultimate peer recognition.
What is that like for you to receive such an honor for your work?
For me, the thing that I really was the most proud of – and I mean, Best Chef Midwest is awesome and I’m going to go to New York and have a blast – but being mentioned in the top 25 best new restaurants in America, as a semifinalist, was maybe more rewarding for me. Because that’s not just me, that’s the accumulation of our team, what we’ve done here and a testament to all of the people that helped make it happen. I think whenever you can put together a group of people and you have that cohesion, you can make great things happen. I thought that was awesome.