Behind the Kitchen: A conversation with Marc Jacksina from Earl’s Grocery

Behind the Kitchen: A conversation with Marc Jacksina from Earl’s Grocery
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This is part of a chef interview series. View all interviews here.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I anxiously and nervously met Chef Marc Jacksina at Earl’s Grocery. I mean he’s the real deal, culinary badass. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him. I learned that he’s a Yankee [like me!], his background consists of skateboarding and punk rock, he loves tacos [can we be friends?] and you better R-E-S-P-E-C-T his potatoes. 

earls-grocery-charlotte

What are your thoughts on social media playing such a huge role in the restaurant scene? Has it made a good or a bad impact?

I think it’s a double-edged sword. I think chefs sometimes forget what we’re actually doing because we have to play PR person plus chef, if you will. Some people do have their own PR firms, but they are still taking pictures behind the scenes. I used to be very active on social media and I’m not active at all anymore, or marginally so. There are times where it opens up very good dialogue. I’m talking about chef as “celebrity”. I didn’t get into this business 30-some-odd-years ago to be a celebrity. It’s part of the package now. Good or bad, it’s there.

What is the first thing you do after a long day at the restaurant?

I don’t work the long hours that I used to. It used to get out of work and go unwind until 2 o’clock in the morning drinking and commiserating with other chefs. Because of what I do here at Earl’s, and my change in habits, when I get out of work I go home and walk my dog. I pick my boys up from school now. So I’m more active with my family. It’s a little bit more normal and a bit abnormal for a chef. After that I cook. If you do it for a living it’s what you do. I get out of here and I try to lead a normal lifestyle. It’s helped with my food in the long run.

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For you, what is the most challenging part of running a restaurant?

At Halcyon we were focused on regional and national media attention, Beard House, Food and Wine festivals. There, the challenge was being able to go and do those things and still maintain my kitchen.

My wife is my worst critic, in the sense that she knows when I’ve made something or when I haven’t, or so she thinks. When I have staff that can make it so that my wife thinks that I made it, then I know my staff is doing a good job, which means I’m doing a good job.

I think the hardest part that translates to all the different projects I’ve done is being able to get a level of consistency and to get your vision across. Which includes those small nuances that make it different. Blake Hartwick and I have worked together in a kitchen. We can both make chow chow with the same recipe and I can guarantee that it would taste different. He’s going to salt at a different time. These small things become our idiosyncrasies, they become our flavors. So I think to translate that into getting other cooks to do it for you, that is probably the biggest challenge. Consistency.

Where do you see the Charlotte food scene going in the near future?

I think the Charlotte food scene is finally on the runway. I got into Charlotte 10 years ago, wanting to be involved with building a scene. I had with skateboarding in New York and punk rock music and poetry and all these things that I’ve been involved with and cooking to a certain degree. But where I was it was like big fish, small pond. It was established and it wasn’t going to change and I didn’t want to get stuck doing the same stuff.

Once I saw Johnson & Wales coming in to Charlotte and my in-laws were already here…I was like we’re moving. It made sense. Like, lets get involved from the ground up. Charlotte was three, four years behind on trends then, we are probably about two to three now. We’re getting caught up much quicker now. Now that groups like Piedmont Culinary Guild have actually formed. It’s something we’ve been talking about for five years. But now that it’s actually up and running, I think we’re seeing it move quicker.

I never felt that Charlotte would define itself in a way that say Charleston has, where it’s a style of cuisine that goes on down there. Here, I think the older dogs like me, step back to do the things that we didn’t do, like pay attention to our families, or go to the doctor, see a movie. The younger guys that are coming in are better connected and I think that they talk more about where they want to go. But at the end of the day, I don’t think we’re going to see a definitive style of cuisine here…I think we are going to see the continuation of embracing the agriculture. Which is what drew me to Charlotte initially, because it reminds me of back home.

Where I see the scene going…it’s going to be much more vibrant. We’re starting to see the general dining public embrace their chef that much more. We’ve had an influx of people from New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Fran, that already have food scenes developed, I think that that is helping us go forward. I think we are metropolitan enough and immigrant based enough that we’ll always be trendy as far as it goes. I mean that in a good way and still working with our local agriculture.

cheese

Besides Charlotte [of course!], what’s your favorite city to eat your way through?

I’ve always said Austin. I’ve liked the vibrancy of it. But now after going to Atlanta, I’d say Atlanta is now more my favorite city for food. They always seem to be ahead of the cusp but not arrogant about it.

What is your prediction for the next “Big Ingredient” in the food world?

Cauliflower is sort of the next “kale” or next “brussels sprout”. I was in the Asian market and I got some gojuchang. That has always been in my pantry as well. I think that’ll be another one of those food trends you see pop up. It works well in this concept of new fusion people can take it and put it into barbecue sauce and put it on short ribs and do something like a Korean fusion barbeue rib and it’ll lend itself to have level of authenticity. That’s probably going to be the biggest food trend, more authenticity. Not buying charcuterie, but making charcuterie.

Do you have any advice you would give an aspiring chef that you wish someone would have given you when you first began your culinary journey?

Yea, finish your philosophy degree. Stay out of the business. (laughs)

I mean you really have to think this one out. That’s the thing they don’t tell you until you graduate and they sit you down and give you your life skills class. Because you’re going to work for $10-$12 an hour in most cities. You really have to be passionate about it. Everyone thinks that they’re going to be the one. I’m going to be the guy that breaks through. I’m going to be the guy that gets remembered. You’re not. If you go in with that attitude of knowing that you’re not, you’ll probably be more successful than thinking that you will be.

Be prepared for heartbreak. Put out proud work. Go work for great chefs, not for great money. Great money won’t happen in this business, good money can, but good pedigree will get you a lot further for a lot longer. Don’t chase the title. Be a great line cook.

ramen

What is your biggest pet peeve in restaurants?

Potatoes. People that disrespect potatoes. There’s a certain process for peeling potatoes and keeping them in cold water and cutting them uniform and bringing them to the right temperature. Any idiot can cook a great steak. If you can’t do a French fry right, you shouldn’t be doing anything else. It’s disrespectful it gets down to waste. That and rat holes. When people punch holes in the plastic. Just unwrap your station. Work clean. I hate hurricanes.

Is there an ingredient or dish that you feel in completely overrated?

Edible flowers. I think it’s overused. There’s a time and place for it.

Anything Southern. Shrimp n’ grits. Well, it’s not that I hate it or it’s overrated…I’m just sick of it.

I’d love to have a great answer, but there’s nothing that I hate enough. Most of them are just pet peeves for me.  Pork belly, maybe? Not that it’s overrated, I’m just over it.

How do you juggle the work versus life balance?

I’m still not balanced. My oldest is fourteen and he’s just now getting me as a father. I think part of it is really going to be on us chefs to I think we need to, and I’m guilty of this, drop this whole bravado that we carry around about I work harder, do more hours. We’re stupid. We perpetuate this on ourselves. We need to stop doing that. Learn how to take a break…learn to let the staff do what they need to do. Finding that balance starts not with the industry, because we are the industry, it starts with the chefs. Not just doing family meal. We have to start somewhere. I think these younger guys have it more on point than my generation was. I think they’re finding the balance. Hopefully the next generation finds it even more.

What do you think about this “Celebrity Chef” phenomenon?

I think it’s great for the young guys. It’s not always great; I think it’s good overall for the industry. Every chef is a celebrity to a certain degree. I mean every time you get a new Twitter follower, or Facebook follower, or Instagram follower that you don’t know, because of what you do for a living, that makes you a celebrity. If you handle it properly, you might be able to generate a better life for you and your family. But at the end of the day it really doesn’t generate any more money, usually. I would imagine it’s a very low percentage that turns that into a direct financial gain immediately. Does it make for a fun career? Sure, you’re going to work the hours anyway.

I’ve done it, but nobody should be walking around with names on our coats. We really need to get back to what it is that we’re all learning. I went from doing James Beard dinners to doing tacos and I’m still learning. If you’re using it for good, great. If you’re thinking it’s going to do something for you, you’re wrong.

Connect with Chef Marc Jacksina and Earl’s Grocery

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