With the very real possibility of a James Beard Award — or two — coming his way Monday, the Seattle chef shares his outlook.
Hunger is not an abstraction for Edouardo Jordan. Right now, the chef/owner of Seattle’s Salare and JuneBaby is looking good, having accumulated a pile of recent accolades — from Food & Wine, GQ, Eater, The New York Times. At a black-tie gala in Chicago on Monday, May 7, he’ll find out whether a James Beard Award will be added to the heap. Or maybe two: He’s a finalist for Best Chef Northwest, and JuneBaby is up for Best New Restaurant in the United States.
But when he was a kid in St. Petersburg, Florida, his family lost its home and had to depend on help to bounce back. Jordan can’t remember exactly how old he was — “It’s a blur,” he says — but it is something he has not forgotten, from his start as a server at a Bennigan’s, through culinary school, through training in the country’s highest echelons of dining such as The French Laundry. Now he gives his time, his teaching, his food and more to nonprofits such as Northwest Harvest, seeking to end hunger hereabouts, and FareStart, helping train local people who are homeless or disadvantaged to work in restaurants.
As a chef of color in a very white industry, he’s been pointedly raising awareness about the intersection of race, food and our country. A Lucky Peach interview with Jordan was entitled “On Being Black in the Kitchen.” He has made JuneBaby not just an experience in, but also an education about, the American South. It is a restaurant with its own encyclopedia, from “Africa” to “yams.”
For the record, no, he’s not thinking about opening another restaurant — he’s plenty busy as it is. His “life goal” is to start his own nonprofit centering on food and health for kids. On JuneBaby’s anniversary — with the possibility of both the restaurant and he himself receiving the restaurant industry’s biggest honor just days away — Jordan talked about it all.
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ON HARD TIMES: “The hardship that my family faced, it’s not as hard as some other folks in my neighborhood … We were able to bounce back [with] help from family, friends, government support and other agencies that kind of gave us a little boost. We weren’t down and out, but we definitely weren’t up at all. I’m very mindful of things that I can do to support the community and kids … I speak through my food. We’re talking about food here, and all the folks that go hungry and don’t have opportunities, or the knowledge that these resources are out there.”
ON THE JOURNEY: “Nothing comes overnight. The first half of my career, before I actually landed with Matt Dillon at Bar Sajor, it had always been a struggle — never really feeling like I got an opportunity to progress in the kitchen. Most of the people that I’ve worked with always saw me as a talented cook, but I just never landed that position that made me feel like ‘I am moving up! I am growing and I’m becoming a chef now!’ until I moved back to Seattle.”
ON RUNNING TWO RESTAURANTS: “We have an eye for more plating and being more technical [at Salare] … Down at JuneBaby, as I tell everyone, it’s like my grandmother’s in the kitchen, but she went to chef school … I let my [4-year-old] son pick which one’s his favorite. [laughs] He always says Salare … They’re two different sides of me. They’re both perfect representations of who I am as a chef and a culinarian.”
ON THE “TREND” OF SOUTHERN FOOD: “I don’t see an exploration or excitement about a particular cuisine as a trend. It can be — if half the country is doing it, yeah, it’s trendy. But I think half of the country has been doing it for years — it’s just no one claimed Southern food … if you go even deeper than that, you can say Southern food is like the birth of American cuisine, to a certain degree. It pretty much fed a lot of Americans and a lot of slaves.”
ON JUNEBABY’S MISSION: “I didn’t start off with a mission. I wanted to create something that was fulfilling for me as a second restaurant, something that wasn’t going to stress me the hell out — something that I felt really good about. And as I continued to grow with that business plan and ideal of the restaurant, it became almost like an obligation, almost a responsibility for me as an African-American chef, to actually explore and educate [about] home Southern food. It became a deeper mission … trying to pass that knowledge along to people as they want to learn — as they want to eat. [laughs] Whatever the case is!”
ON BEING MISUNDERSTOOD: “I just had an email the other day … it was a young lady, and she had a beautiful meal down at JuneBaby, and she praised us for some of the dishes that she had, and then she got to the Antebellum buns. And she was like, ‘Look, these were delicious — however, the word “antebellum” …’ She went on this rant of how this is not good, and we were being inconsiderate, and we’re in 2018 and we need to be thinking about the history, et cetera, et cetera …
“Long story short, I explained to her that JuneBaby’s exploring the good and the bad of Southern food, the beautiful and the ugly, everything that made Southern food famous and everything that made Southern food not so famous. And … I informed her that this is a black-owned establishment, and I’m very much well aware what ‘antebellum’ means. That’s why I actually named it [that] … I think she was fighting the good fight, but she didn’t come with the right weapons! [laughs]”
MORE ON JUNEBABY: “I don’t ever want to make our guests uncomfortable while they’re eating … That’s not the point of why our menu is written with the storyline, or written with historical content on the ingredients that we use, from how we prepare certain dishes, et cetera. It’s not to make people uncomfortable. It’s to actually inform them: This is reality.”
EATING AT JUNEBABY: “We get wrapped [up] in the commercialized form of Southern food — the fried chicken, the collard greens, the mac and cheese, easily. And Southern food is deeper than that … You definitely won’t get chitlins anywhere else [but JuneBaby], unless you go to a really down-home Southern restaurant … And straight chitlins, like, original form of chitlins, not andouille sausage French-style … Pickled pig trotters — how many times are you gonna find that? Like straight-up pickled pig trotters, not picked and rolled into a terrine and all beautiful and everything, but, like, this is how it is! Go gnaw on this hoof!”
ITALY VS. THE AMERICAN SOUTH: “My family are rooted in Georgia … when you pop into Louisiana, or New Orleans, or you go into Birmingham, or you go into Charleston, those are total different regions. It’s like going to Italy, and you’re going to Parma, and you’re going to Florence, and you go to Milan. It’s totally different things that you’re going to experience and see. And I think people don’t realize that the South is that diverse … I want people to think about Southern food like that, too — how dynamic and progressive it is … Can you handle that? [laughs]”
ON ALL THE AWARDS: “James Beard — all that’s an honor. It’s definitely something that you strive for as a chef. But the reality for me is I have two sides to the equation: I’m a chef and I’m a restaurant owner. So I have bigger responsibilities than just trying to like collect awards and recognition … I’m not like sitting there on my couch, ‘Heyyyyyy, here comes another award!’ [laughs]
“Honestly, I’m worried about what dishwasher’s not going to show up, what cook is sick today, where do I need to fill in, did I pay the bills, are they double-charging me, did they fix it right? So all of those things keep me very much humbled … I’m appreciative that I’m being recognized and my staff is being recognized, because I can’t do this on my own … I’m also humble because of my upbringing, and what I’ve seen and been through as a youth. [snaps] In a blink of an eye, things can go sour.”
ON BEING BLESSED: “It’s an honor to be in the finals in two categories for the James Beard. I know I’m gonna party hard and have a good time with my staff if we win, but when we come back, we still gotta go to work. [laughs] … It’s definitely an honor. I’m not taking it for granted — what is happening, and how blessed I am as a chef, as a chef of color.”