by Vivianne Lapointe
A former volleyball player, cancer survivor and Top Chef alum, Chef CJ Jacobson has been around the world twice and lived many lives. Shortly after coming back from an apprenticeship at Denmark's Noma—owner of two Michelin stars and three "best restaurant in the world" titles—he now embarks on a new journey in his hometown of Los Angeles. There Jacobson finds himself collaborating with Hollywood restaurant mogul George Abou-Daoud on a new menu for the wine bar, The Mercantile.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Jacobson to discuss culinary innovations, his current projects and his favorite ingredients and tools, as well as what it's like to have one more chance on America's most popular cooking competition.
Describe the creative process of your collaboration with restaurateur George Abou-Daoud on The Mercantile menu.
George and I have understood each other from very early on. He is a driven, passionate and somewhat eccentric person and I am the same. George is very good at describing what he wants, and unlike many restaurant owners, gets the kitchens side of things. Luckily for me, he also has a very good palate. We can be talking about three or four ideas at the same time; our creative process is quick, but our honing process is arduous.
How do you create a good environment in your kitchen?
I really fucking love what I do. I dream of food. l daydream of food. I rear-ended a car last week because I was thinking about mung beans. If I can inspire and relay that passion to my cooks then ideally they will like their job. I try to teach the "how" and "why" and not just deliver recipes to cooks.
What are challenges when working with cheese and charcuterie?
The only real challenge with cooking with great cheese and charcuterie is the same as with any great ingredient: let the ingredient shine. Restraint. I can't make Prosciutto de Parma better, so I don't.
What's your favorite dish you created for this menu?
My favorite dish on the menu at Mercantile would have to be the farro salad with marinated tomato, sorrel and smoked ricotta salata. It has everything I love, it's fresh, earthy, smokey and finishes with vibrance.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with right now?
The world's raddest herb, sorrel. It's an herb with intense chlorophyl flavor, grassiness and finishes with a citrus note. It's also sweet. I don't know why more people aren't more familiar. It will make your life better.
What would you say is your signature as a chef?
As a chef I really don't have a signature. It's kind of a frustrating question. Cooking is time, thought, process and restraint. Maybe one day I will create something akin to a smoked salmon pizza, but for now I just keep on keepin' on.
What is one tool you can't live without?
I love my Japanese knives. I get them from Japanese Knife Imports in Venice. I call them my girlfriends and they are often times as unforgiving.
What's your favorite trend in the food world right now?
Fermentation without a doubt. We don't do any at The Mercantile, but I really love it.
What's one life lesson you learned from working at Noma?
A million things. It changed me greatly. I suppose the focus on tasting an ingredient. A lot can happen creatively if you focus on what you are eating. When was the last time you focused on the sweetness of raw cauliflower? It's there, it's significant and in knowing that, creativity can begin.
Kitchen pet peeve?
Cooks not tasting everything. It just kills me.
How was your experience on Top Chef this time around?
I have thoroughly enjoyed being on Top Chef this season, but it also drove me crazy. Being in judgement all over again I was thinking to myself, "What the hell was I thinking coming back on? This is brutal!" Last Chance Kitchen, something I despised until I was on it, was a pleasant surprise. It's a lot more cooking and a lot less drunk yelling. It was also nice to have a great chef like Tom Colichio watch you cook for 30 minutes. It's humbling. Now that I lost against Kristin in LCK it's up to my fans to #savechefcj. It will be a tough battle for Twitter votes as I am not utilizing a PR firm. I like it like that.