Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Kris Jakob of Kris Bistro, On His Early Days as a Frat House Cook, Developing a Culinary School Curriculum, and The Idea Behind Kris Bistro

This is the second part of a three-part chef chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

Yesterday, we started getting to know Kris Bistro's chef and namesake, Kris Jakob, learning about his German roots in Texas, and his experience working with charcuterie from a young age. Today we learn about his start in the culinary world and how that led to a career in culinary education.

EOW: Let's talk about how you got into food, and how you became an instructor. Is that something you always wanted to do?

KJ: No, no. When I was at the restaurant I had to work. I had so many cases of potatoes to peel and so many pounds of sausages to stuff, because we made our knockwurst to bratwurst. Or I had to bread all the cutlets or schnitzels. That was my job, then I had to do homework, and come back and wash the dishes. And I hated it. Everyone else is out riding bikes, having a good time, and I'm stuck in the restaurant. I remember when I was 16, I told my dad -- we'd moved out to a house at that point -- and I remember telling him "Okay, I'm going to get a job somewhere else, I don't want to do this anymore." But it's funny, I had friends that were working at Sonic, so I went to work at Sonic.

EOW: So how much more fun was that?

KJ: Well the difference was that I had a good work ethic, and those people at Sonic saw that pretty quick, and wanted to make me an assistant manager after about three months. So after about a year there, my dad went up to the manager, and said "Today's the last day my son's going to work here."

EOW: So he took you out forcibly. What made him decide to do that?

KJ: He thought that was silly. "You're working at Sonic, it's fast food. If you want to work in food, you need to work in a proper restaurant." So, he was friends with Phil Romano -- he's kind of like the Steve Jobs of chain restaurants. He made the concept for Phil Romano's Macaroni Grill. Here in town, he made the whole prepared foods thing popular with EatZi's -- before Central Market and Whole Foods.

EOW: So you went to work for him?

KJ: So the very first Macaroni Grill ever --this is outside of San Antonio. That was the summer when I was 17. I went to work there, and that place was just bananas. It was the first double open kitchen concept in the states. We would do 800 covers in an evening. It was a three to four hour wait. EOW: You're teaching now, so I'm assuming you went to culinary school at some point, right?

KJ: Eventually I went to UT, thinking I wasn't going to do the restaurant business anymore, and I ended up joining a fraternity, thinking "This is great, I can party." And I lived in the frat house, and after three months of eating hamburgers and junk food, I got some camping burners and cooked meals in my room. But there were 80 guys in the house, and they were coming by my room going "Hey man, do you have any extra?" So, they got together with alumni and put in a badass kitchen in the house. It was great, professional kitchen, walk-in cooler. So then, I was feeding all of them.

EOW: So they were like, "Okay, Kris, you can be our cook!" How does that work?

KJ: Well, it sounded it good to me, because, you know, they paid me. So I had this killer kitchen, they paid me, it was great. But then I got too busy because they had another frat house across the street that didn't have a cook or a kitchen, so I took them on. So I went from 300 meals a day to 600 meals a day, and I didn't have great labor, they were all pledges.

EOW: So what were you making?

KJ: We'd do chicken fried steak, tacos, enchiladas, but it was all from scratch. And they'd have their date nights, and all the specials, like Christmas bashes, we would set up linens and everything, because they were like, "Why go to a restaurant? We'll just eat here."

EOW: When were you studying?

KJ: PR, for one semester, and then I was too busy. And then I started catering. I bought a new car, I had all this money. I was 18, 19. I thought "This is awesome!" It was great. But there's a point where you get to where you're like "Man, I'm too old to be here."

EOW: So you thought you'd go to culinary school. You didn't really need to go, did you?

KJ: Yeah, you're right. Going to school there was kind of a joke.

EOW: What were you learning? Knife skills, sauces...

KJ: The curriculum sucked. It was terrible, literally.

EOW: How does it compare to the curriculum that's offered here at LeNotre, now?

KJ: Because I went to school and I saw what was going on, and I taught at another culinary school before here, where I made the program, I didn't want the same thing. It was one chef to 40 people.

EOW: And what is it here?

KJ: Here, it's one instructor to maximum of 15 students. There, they would give you the seven recipes and say, "Okay guys, see you later, bring it to me when you're done, and I'll taste it and judge it."

EOW: So they weren't teaching you technique at all?

KJ: Not really, they were teaching you recipes. Where here, we're not recipe driven, we're technique driven. The whole program here, we go through a series of different techniques in the first 20 weeks where we practice each technique. Right now we're on sauteeing sauce, and we just practice that method with different proteins. When I built the program here, I built it to where you do 20 weeks of that.

EOW: Backtrack a moment. What is your role here? When you say you built the program, because the school was here already. When did you come and what were you tasked with doing?

KJ: I came here six years ago. At that time, I was just an instructor, and we only had 40 students. Because the group was so small, they would stay with me for 40 weeks of what that program was. There was only four of us total: Me, one other, and a couple of part times. So I restructured the whole program with Alain [LeNotre]. We put in the academic portion -- career development, food and beverage management, academics like math and English, nutrition, cost control.

EOW: And that wasn't here before?

KJ: So we developed all that, and by doing that -- extending the program -- we were able to get more financial aid. So when we did that, we went from 40 students, to now we have 420 students.

EOW: So question: This restaurant, Kris Bistro, how was it conceived? Was it your idea as well?

KJ: So, all this perception of culinary school amongst the independent guys. There's different kinds of chefs, there's different professions within the culinary school, like doctors. You can be a country club chef, or a hotel chef, or a chain chef, corporate chef. What ended up happening is you'd get guys that'd say "You don't need to go to culinary school, guys coming out of here, they don't have any speed, they don't know how to organize the line." Students coming out of here, we just practice technique, and it's in slow motion so you see all the steps. But you throw 'em in the back of the kitchen, it's like "Okay guys, it's not just one chicken, I need three cases, so get on it." This school is always good because you have more lab hours than elsewhere, but I wanted to give them experience on the line. So the idea was to open this as an internship site, so students could come in and do five weeks in the front house, and five weeks in the back house.

EOW: What I was really amazed at during your big dinner the other night was the consistency of everything -- everything was seasoned properly, the right temperature -- I thought everything was really really well prepared. What can you do as a chef and instructor to ensure that the students are doing everything right?

KJ: You know the thing is, what's different here, is that everyone that's here really wants to be here. They want to come. That's the advantage. The students fight to get in. They really want to be there.

EOW: How many positions are back there?

KJ: We have seven that we rotate through. Everyone's really passionate. That's the advantage that I have. Here, it's not a job. This is what they want to do, it's not about the money. Out there, you can find really great workers, but they're there for a paycheck. Like right now, we're having an issue with french fries, because we have to get a special potato from Canada

EOW: So what's your vision for the restaurant?

KJ: When we decided to do this, I didn't want it to be associated with the school. I didn't want the people to come here and think that they'd be culinary guinea pigs. I wanted it to operate as an independent restaurant, and that's largely why we named it Kris Bistro. We wanted them to think of it as something separate. But really, it was to train and give the students an opportunity to work in more of an upscale cuisine. Everything here is farm to table. We use a program called Seed the Table, so I know where our fish is coming from. Right now, we've just finished building our garden. So, we'll have a master gardener that will have a class once a week, and the students will grow the vegetables. We'll incorporate the garden into the program. So we'll be growing and sourcing from our own garden.

Check back with us tomorrow when we taste some of Jakob's dishes.

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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