What happens when a shy girl from the heart of the Midwest meets a fast-talking Texan? You get frenchish, the current restaurant project of Jennifer James and Nelle Bauer. What you also get are two very generous and affable women who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is or hide who they are. We enjoyed a delightful afternoon of deviled eggs and rabbit terrine as Nelle and Jennifer, dressed for work in their chef’s whites and Crocs, shared a few memories and their vision for the future. I asked a few questions and tried to stay out of the way. We got to talking.
Mark Oppenheimer: I heard a chef once say, “In the end, it isn’t only about eating; it’s about discovering.”
Jennifer James: To me, it’s more about nostalgia than discovering. Food creates these memories of, “Oh my gosh, my mom used to make this!” Or, “This tastes like this memory from my childhood.”
To Nelle Bauer: You’re kinda young to have a whole lot of memories.
Nelle: And you’re so old, you have so many…. [Everyone laughs.]
JJ: I do that on a daily basis––I’m constantly drawing from or thinking of things from when I was a kid growing up on two farms. Both my grandparents have farms. I’m keenly aware in all my cooking of those memories of what we ate and how we got it, procured it, killed it, and whatever it took to get it to the table.
Nelle: So that’s what you rely on, [memory]?
JJ: Yeah, totally.
Mark: You decided to name your restaurant frenchish. How does that relate to the traditional boundaries of classic French cuisine versus innovation?
Nelle: We have a respect for classic French technique and classic French presentation and all the people that have trail-blazed and come before us.
JJ: I don’t think I think about it much. I think I kind of ride between both fences because I’m very traditional in some ways––like, don’t mess with foie gras, the terrine or the pâté, and don’t mess with coq au vin. But then I’ll have a moment of: Oh, but we could play with it and do this…I think we do both.
Nelle: We do do both, but that keeps our minds alert and keeps us excited.
Mark: JJ, you’re self-taught and learned on the lines of working kitchens, while Nelle, you formally trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. How do you see the difference in each other’s work?
Nelle: Sixty-K debt. [JJ laughs.] I learned a lot, but it was lots of book stuff, not practical––but there was some practical experience. I was in the kitchen everyday, but I would say, 90 percent of what I know and utilize on a daily basis, I’ve learned from Jennifer.
JJ: [Laughs] My cost is probably part physical, part mentally draining. You learn by doing it 14-15 hours a day in the kitchen––you’re making those mistakes and those failures and what nots, accumulating those experiences into an education. However, there’s a level of insecurity having not gone through that rigorous training. “Am I doing this right? I need to try it again. Then again, should I even attempt it? I wasn’t trained to do that.” So there’s a certain level of insecurity.
I’m cooking from the gut, from the heart––but you [Nelle] have the diploma, the technique, you have all that. Truly a balance I think.
Mark: Nice, you balance each other out?
Nelle: Absolutely, so much so.
Nelle: Jen has years of experience, and years of having done it incorrectly or differently, having taught herself, going through all the possible iterations of how it could be done, and I have the one method from the book that I’m going to start with and hope it works. Jen will watch me and go, ‘No-no-no I tried that, that’s not it.” I learn from you everyday.
JJ: I think it’s a really good balance. She’s very practical. “Let me find a solution to this problem––let me get the best way to do that.” [She’s] very good with numbers and people, and I’m very much on the other end of the spectrum. Let me cook from my gut and see if it works. I don’t know the technique, I don’t want to think about the numbers––I just want to create, be in the kitchen all day. I want to look out and see the customers, and I can tell if they’re enjoying it or not. But I don’t want to be out there talking to the customers. Nelle’s great at that, making them feel at home and comfortable. I think it’s a really good balance.
Mark: Some painters prepare their canvas by applying layers of thin coats of various color oil paints, which in the finished product creates a chorus of complexity. Likewise, great cooking involves delivering a complexity of flavors. How do you build flavor complexities?
Nelle: We use that phrase often. Layering of flavor is something we teach and promote among our crew.
JJ: You don’t need anything that doesn’t need to be there, and you need everything that does. I think for us, it’s not only on the plate but it’s a layer of “the experience.” You have to taste food, you have to eat out, eat your own food, eat the raw ingredients. It’s something you need to figure out, and I think that’s never ending, a constant learning experience.
Mark: These days, customers post a picture on their Instagram account before they take a bite. How do you feel about cooking for Instagram?
Nelle: We are a business; we have to cook for as much of the demographics as we can, and the Instagram crowd is one of them, and so are people that don’t know what the Internet is. We have both those customers sitting side by side.
JJ: Currently, that’s what it’s come down to.
Nelle: Go crazy, do it.
JJ: In a way it’s flattering.
Nelle: It’s super flattering.
JJ: But in another way it’s: Eat your food already.
Nelle: Yeah, it’s hot right now, put your phone down.
JJ: You should be so occupied by the food you forget to take the picture.
Mark: It seems that most chefs privilege the visual, the plating, and curiously, rarely do we smell food in a restaurant, while the science says smell is as important if not more important than the visual component.
Nelle: I think food should look and smell like food. The act of eating should be a five-senses activity, just like cooking should be a five-senses activity––and they should be the mirror image of each other. When you receive what we’ve cooked on a plate, you have the mirror image of my process. Your product is my process of using all of my senses to make sure you get to experience it with all your senses.
Mark: A chef I admire once wrote, “…cooking is more than applying heat to food in complicated ways. A good cook brings his or her life to the table and sucks as much experience from the world to do it.”
JJ: I think there’s a lot of soulless food out there. It might look pretty on a plate or be the most expensive ingredient, but it’s soulless, it tastes of nothing. You gotta put your guts and your heart, your everything, on that plate.
Nelle: And a lot of that food you’re talking about probably doesn’t look anything like an experience someone else has ever had, it looks like modern art, drippy, touched and fussed over.
Mark: Growing up with cooks in the family, you probably have well-documented food traditions. Is there a family generations cookbook, or a box of 3×5 cards with recipes?
JJ: Yeah, it’s a spiral-bound cookbook that my sister started––you write the recipes in it. She gathered them from everybody [in my family] and started filling out the book. I know she gave one to me, my grandparents, my mom, close friends and family. My grandmother also has one. I don’t know who has possession of it now; it’s been passed down to somebody, and those deviled eggs on our menu were everywhere at a family meal.
JJ to Nelle: You have your grandmother’s don’t you?
Nelle: Yep. I have my grandmother’s. It’s fabric-covered and it has these fabric handles and it was one of those photo albums with those plastic things that they don’t use anymore because of the acid on the actual photograph and she would stick all those chicken scratch recipes in there. The book that I have still smells like my grandmother’s house from when I was a kid. She kept it in the kitchen, so it still smells like Pecorino Romano cheese and meatballs.
Mark: Does cooking allow you the opportunity to both engage and also disengage from connecting with others?
Nelle: Absolutely, I can answer super affirmatively for that.
JJ: Definitely yes. If I’m working all the time, I can avoid any other problems. Personally, because I’m working, I don’t have time to deal with that. I’m not a social person, I’m kinda shy; I’m not real great at being a social butterfly. I can hide in the kitchen working, I can be busy and find 800 things I need to be doing rather than something else. I know that to be true.
Nelle: I like to be good at things and part of being good at things is that I can tinker with what I do in the kitchen and remain curious––but’s it’s more than simply being curious, because I keep changing, doing and getting an opportunity to do it over. And not just a recipe, but every time I interact with a customer, the next opportunity I have to interact with another customer, I get to do it differently and it’s almost like I get to keep improving, changing and trying out different versions of me.
I avoid only getting one shot at things because in the kitchen or in the dining room I get to do it over and over again. I get to keep fixing it, so it’s different than, say, maybe like right now [in this interview], or taking a final exam and that’s how I avoid the situations that only allow me one shot at it. That’s what I avoid, but then I think that’s my true vulnerable self.
JJ: It is vulnerable. You put time, effort and your heart and soul into it, yet it can be the ultimate let-down, disappointment or failure. But it could be that “Ahaha! This is it!” That perfect-bite moment.
Mark: What is an essential quality in a chef?
JJ: I think being humble; you’re only as good as the last plate that went out. For me, it’s humility.
Nelle: Self-reflection of the product, not necessarily of yourself. But reflection on the work you’ve just done and over and over like everything, like even while you’re in the process of making something, not necessarily after you’ve made it. Continuously evaluating the process and poking at it. [Laughing]
Mark: What do you think of recipes?
Nelle: Take it or leave it, depending upon the day.
JJ: I don’t use them per se; I don’t write things down. I’m not a recipe writer. I can look at a dish read the ingredients and see where they’re going. I see their purpose, their usefulness. I’m thinking for non-cooks—people cooking in their homes—recipes are great, it gets them into food, gets them cooking. I don’t think they should hang their hats on them and not be afraid to experiment. You can teach someone to cook so they don’t need a recipe.
Nelle: Then again, for baking, I would say recipes are a pretty good thing––I probably wouldn’t have said that a few years ago, but maybe now I will admit that sometimes using the recipe and the correct oven temperature is a good thing.
Mark: Is there a seminal experience or influence that shaped your desire to be a chef?
JJ: Family, childhood, growing up. It was just so ingrained in my family. We always cooked, there was never an event where there wasn’t food, and we always cooked from scratch.
I came from a really small town––it just didn’t occur to me to consider cooking as a profession; at that time, it wasn’t cool or a female thing to do. Then I got to college and I had a great professor in the restaurant-management program who owned a restaurant, and it kind of evolved from there and it felt natural because I grew up with it.
To Nelle: And you kinda just happened upon it. You said you wanted to learn about food?
Nelle: I don’t think I ever thought I would be a cook. I was not very good at it in school, so it just didn’t strike me as something I would pursue. I wasn’t one of the people that left culinary school with a job offer to be in a restaurant. I was not striving to go work for the Michelin starred chefs or get in with all the chef people and do that. I thought it was cool to be behind the scenes and ask questions, watch, learn and figure it out…kinda like a science experiment. [JJ laughs.]
JJ: That’s how you approach everything––like a science experiment.
Mark: Do you think feelings of love enhance flavor perception?
Nelle: One of the problems we encounter are the moods the customers bring in with them. Our job is to change their mood at the door. So many people walk through this door hungry, they get out of their cars perhaps arguing about finding a parking space, and by the time that food hits the table, we hope there’s been a 180-degree shift.
JJ: Our job is much more than the food––and you can tell if you’re going to be able to help change that experience or take their mind off it while they’re here.
Nelle: You can totally tell. I can tell when they call up to make the reservation, or when they call to ask if they need to make a reservation, and don’t make a reservation. I can tell when those people walk in the door––that I just spoke to four hours earlier––because you can just sense it, what’s going on in their world that they’re going to try and bring in here, and we need to help them drop it at the door.
Mark: I have been unsuccessful working with both of my wives. How do you manage your time together and apart?
JJ: I was once told in my early years in the business how to manage and balance my life, and that it was OK to have boundaries and say, “No, I don’t have time to talk to you right now, do we have an appointment? Am I expecting your call?” Basically, to cut it off at the pass. Your time is your valuable time, so figure out how to say no, and decide what is important to you. Somebody had to teach me that.
Nelle: And you’re teaching me that now.
Mark: Boundaries can prove challenging for many of us.
JJ: I feel like when I have boundaries, I’m being The Bitch just by saying no.
Nelle: Time is your asset. And you have very little time for yourself––so you have to preserve those moments that are yours or that belong to the work that you’re doing.
JJ: And when I am here working, it is my time.
Mark: Is there such a thing as The Perfect Bite?
JJ to Nelle: [Laughing] Yes. What’s your answer? I’m going back and forth because when we say the perfect bite, it means you need to get a little bit of everything that’s on the plate onto your fork so you know what it tastes like. So clearly, there is a perfect bite. [All laugh.]
Nelle: It’s one of those bites that, 10 years later, I can still remember how it felt in my mouth, the texture of that pasta, how it tasted, what the table looked like, what the lighting was like, all of that. I can still remember those particular perfect bites.
JJ: But you’ve had great meals without one, too, right?
Nelle: That’s true.
JJ: How do you keep track? I think maybe the perfect bite is cumulative.
Nelle: That could be.
JJ: Right, you have customers that come in every week on end and it’s like a cumulative bite for them. They didn’t have a “Wow, I’m going to fall over in my seat” bite.
Mark: Do you believe intelligent life exits beyond our solar system or that we are alone in the Universe?
Nelle: We are such a little tiny speck in this ginormous universe, really, would it all be wasted on just us? That doesn’t make any sense; of course I believe. There is absolutely other intelligent life out there.
JJ: If there is, why haven’t we heard from them already?
Nelle: Maybe they’re more intelligent than us? Maybe they’re hiding from us right now. Wouldn’t you hide from us?
JJ: Yes, I would. I would hide in my kitchen.