With plenty of practice, knowledge garnered by working with world-renowned chefs and an evident passion for cooking, Chef Jacques Qualin is a force in the culinary world. Born and raised in France, Qualin moved across the pond in the early 90s and started his career in the U.S., working at various eateries in New York. He left the snow for the sun and has been executive chef at J&G Steakhouse for more than ten years.
Where did you grow up?
I’m originally from France. I grew up on the east side in a region called Franche-Comté, right above the Alps and right on the border of Switzerland. It’s very green, lots of mountains and agriculture and foraging – and lots of meat and cheese!
When did you move to America?
In 1995. I was here once before in 1991 and worked for Chef Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque [in New York] for a year and a half and then came back a few years later. I worked for a long time on the east coast;
I owned my own place upstate – and moved here to Phoenix in 2009 to open J&G Steakhouse.
Your career started with culinary school?
Yes – I went through the apprentice program in France at age 16. The program is two years long, and you have to work while also going to school. At school, you learn about the business and the health department. I feel like the program in France goes a little deeper than in America. It’s a lot of practice. I finished first in my class and immediately started working in a restaurant – I worked my way up through each position.
What’s a favorite childhood meal you remember?
There are many of them! Mom was a classic cook. There was a lot of smoked meat, cheeses – or a roasted chicken with all of the sides for Sunday dinner. In France, we paid a lot of attention to detail on the food, depending on what we made. There were one or two appetizers, a salad, a main course – and cheese – and dessert!
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
Oh, always. Ever since I was young, I watched my mother cook at home, and she put out some very nice meals – she was a great cook. I learned many recipes, and I was very eager to read books on cooking and work on my recipes.
Any anecdotes from your time in the kitchen?
Back in 1991, I was working at Le Cirque in the kitchen, and one day, the chef asked me to help out in pastry because they were short-staffed and needed help. The pastry chef, Jacques Torres, handed me a menu with 15 desserts on it, and I asked if he would show me the dishes. Service started, and he disappeared. So I had to work in pastry all by myself – I had to learn quickly!
Where else have you worked?
I worked in Paris for a while. Then, mainly in New York City with Chef Boulud and also with Chef Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. I worked with Jean-Georges for a long time. I worked at JoJo, the first restaurant he opened in New York City and after that, went to Trump Tower. I was an executive chef at a small French restaurant before opening my own in the Catskills.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to open a restaurant?
Don’t be defeated. There are a lot of hours to put in, and a lot of things will come at you – when you think you have enough, it’s not enough because there’s always something more that could happen. You have to be super motivated and in good health.
To open a restaurant, you have to find the right location, concept, and people. Many people open places and realize they picked the wrong location or concept, and it becomes a challenge.
What is the inspiration for the recipes at J&G?
Mostly I try to work seasonally. We change the menu every season because ingredients change – so there are different things to work with in the summer that don’t work in the winter. In Arizona, the weather is always nice, but in other places, you don’t want something light during the winter – you want something heavy or hearty, you know?
I mean, now you can get anything you want from anywhere in the world, but I like to follow the seasons – I think that’s important.
At J&G, it’s a little different because the root of the menu is the steak – meat is meat, but I can play around with the appetizers, the sides and the fish.
Do you have a favorite dish you like to cook?
Yes, a few things! I love to cook fish; I’m very good at that. I’ve won many contests cooking fish. One was the Heineken challenge back east.
I had to develop a recipe with a Heineken beer as the base and a fish. So I made a skin-seared salmon with stuffed cabbage and a beer glaze, and I won. So that was good. I like making pastries as well. I make my own pastry at J&G. Oh, and pasta, I love to cook pasta.
What about the most challenging dish you’ve had to cook?
In France, when you’re doing the apprenticeship and have to take exams, there are 120 recipes that you have to know by heart. It’s tough to replicate the recipe the way they want it, you know? Classic dishes can be hard, with technique and timing.
I think part of the issue with some of the new generation is that they don’t know the base – not that they don’t want to learn recipes, but there are fewer schools, too. If the teacher isn’t knowledgeable about the recipe, it’s tough for the new generation to learn.
Do you have a signature dish?
Back east, I did a turbot [a firm flatfish from France] with a comté cheese crust. I made the crust with butter, bread crumbs and cheese and served it with spinach and a creamy white wine sauce. I had some really good reviews on that one.
At J&G, we’re doing roasted peaches with a basil pesto emulsion and homemade wagyu meatballs with tomato marmalade and asiago/parmesan cheese. It’s good!
What is your favorite part of being a chef?
My favorite part is teaching people. It’s important to pass on the knowledge and teach people something. I work 12 hours a day, and being a chef is all about managing, but once you learn that, it’s all about what you can pass on to another.
What mantra do you use when it gets crazy in the kitchen?
I would say stress is good as long as it doesn’t overwhelm you. Think clear and work fast – that’s my mantra.
What hobbies do you have outside of the kitchen?
I love the outdoors, so I love to go hiking, hunting, fishing. I’m a competitive shooter, so I shoot long range in various competitions. I like to travel – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico. I don’t make it back to France, though.
One item you can’t live without in your kitchen?
Cheese. My favorite is comté!
And your favorite comfort food?
Well, it’s a little obvious, but cheese for sure. I always go back to pasta, or a nice salad or vegetables. I try to avoid sugar, but I do love ice cream.
How do you overcome challenges in the kitchen?
You have to have goals. Without goals, there won’t be a challenge. The challenge comes when you figure out how you want to move forward in your life, so you find your goal and push as much as you can to get there. Stay flexible, work hard, work fast. At the end of the day, you have to do your best to make your guests happy. That’s what is important to me.
What’s in store for the future of Chef Qualin?
Retirement [laughs]. No, actually, I’m not sure. I’ve been at J&G for 13 years – but I’m always up to something!