Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Kris Jakob of Kris Bistro, on Growing Up in Texas's German Country, and the Art of Curing Sausage

This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Check back with us for parts two and three, which will run in this same space Thursday and Friday.

Kris Jakob is frowning in concentration, looking a bit intimidating. He's concentrating ferociously on his plating, and I'm trying to snap a candid photo. It's not a scenario that happens often for this excellent chef, an instructor at Culinary Institute LeNôtre, which also houses his eponymous restaurant, Kris Bistro. But it should be.

I had one of the most exquisite meals the other week when his restaurant -- an incubator for budding young student chefs at the school -- delivered one of my most memorable meals of the year for a special Karbach Brewing Co. beer pairing dinner.

"The students did everything, not me," Jakob said that night, not taking credit when I lavished him with praise. That, to me, is the true mark of a great restaurant chef. When I walked into the kitchen that night, everything was running smoothly, under control. Jakob would plate one sample plate before his students took over, standing back to see them emulate his moves, then turn around to do something else. The dishes were his, the execution by his students flawless, a steamed halibut with coconut curry sauce so exquisite that I was immediately intrigued: Who is Kris Jakob and why haven't we heard more about him?

That's what we hope to find out in this week's Chef Chat.

EOW: Kris Jakob. That's a strong German name. Are you a first-generation German?

KJ: My father is first-generation German, and my mom was a second-generation German. I was born here.

EOW: So you're a second-generation German. Where did you grow up?

KJ: Poteet, right outside of San Antonio. A small town. It's the strawberry capital of Texas. It's like one stoplight, Dairy Queen. That's about it. Probably population 99 percent Hispanic, 1 percent white.

EOW: So your mom's German, too?

KJ: Her parents were first-generation German. That's actually how my parents met. When my dad came here, he didn't speak any English. They put him back in high school -- he was 18 and he'd already graduated, he'd been working in Germany since he was 14 -- and so, when he got here and they put him in high school, of course he didn't speak any English, so the librarian was my mom's aunt, she spoke German, and that's how they met.

EOW: And this is in Poteet or somewhere else?

KJ: This was in San Antonio, but we have a ranch in Poteet. When my great-grandfather came here in 1910, they were giving away land. So it was like a land migration from Germany. They were giving away partitions to populate this area of Texas, and Germans were trying to get away from debt and World War I, so the Germans colonized down here. The boat landed in Galveston.

EOW: So where are the Germans here in Texas?

KJ: San Antonio's a huge German population. That's why there's the San Antonio-Mexican blend. When you go down to San Antonio, pretty much all the hotels and the street names are German. Like the Gunther Hotel. They got land there and the hill country. San Marcos, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg. All these are German settlements.

EOW: That's so cool. So your grandfather owned a ranch?

KJ: My grandfather owned the ranch. They gave that land to us when we got here. And we still own it. We have a house out there that was built in 1922. My parents still live out there, in that house. It's real tiny. My dad got drafted into the military, didn't know any English, and he worked on aircraft -- he was a mechanic.

EOW: Nothing to do with food. How did you get started in food?

KJ: My dad had a bunch of German friends in San Antonio, and they owned a German restaurant called Little Bavarian Inn. My dad's really a mechanic by trade, so when we moved to the city from Poteet, we moved on top of the restaurant where they had an apartment. When I was 13, 14, we lived upstairs, and the restaurant was below, and there was a group of five different guys that owned the restaurant, and they would take turns cooking -- it was Ralph's turn this week...

EOW: What would they make? What was a German restaurant like?

KJ: Unfortunately, even then, it's the kind of stereotypical lederhosen and slinging beer type of thing. The wives, like my mom, was a waitress, and they would wear the traditional German outfits. It was stupid. I don't like that stereotype. Anyways, they would make their own sausage, charcuterie, schnitzels, sauerbraten, pork knuckles, potato dumplings, bread dumplings, goose plum.

EOW: I understand that you've been making charcuterie since you were five. Is that standard in German families or just yours?

KJ: My family. My dad has always been a great cook. At that time, you couldn't get this kind charcuterie here. But he grew up in a boarding home, and his job at the boarding room was cooking in the kitchen. In the summertime -- my family has a home in Iserlohn, Germany -- and during the summers, we would take off and go there. One of the sausages that I make here, they would make during the summer around June-July, and it would be ready right around Oktoberfest. They'd hang it up in the barn in the rafters -- they would tie everything up there and just let it go.

EOW: That's crazy! I don't know anything about sausage-making. Is it hard to do?

KJ: It's an art. You have to understand what's going on.

EOW: What is going on?

KJ: It depends on what you're making. Sometimes you're just curing or brining whole muscle groups. You're introducing salt as a preservative, and then you're hanging it in the open-air environment to dehydrate. So you know the doneness of your product by your water weight. So you take the weight of the product beforehand and then as you dry it, you would say, "Okay, I want 10 percent loss or 20 percent loss." So once you weigh it again, and it has 20 percent loss, then it's ready. So that'll determine the dryness of the sausage.

EOW: Is dry sausage better than moist sausage?

KJ: Some of 'em you want moist, some you want drier. I tend to like drier, because drier has more flavor. So I try to cure mine up to about 20 percent loss.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Kris Jakob.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham