It’s no small feat to make the James Beard Foundation semifinalist list for best chef in the Southwest, but there she is—Albuquerque’s Jennifer James lit up the roster in 2010. To put this in perspective, New Mexico had only three nominees this year, including James Campbell Caruso of La Boca and Eric DiStefano of Coyote Café, both in Santa Fe. There were only 20 nominees in all of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and New Mexico.
Diners at Jennifer James 101 would not be surprised at this distinction. The small restaurant that houses James newest kitchen is bright and elegant, an appropriate backdrop for the food and service that James has honed to near perfection. Chef/owners Jennifer James, Nelle Bauer and Kelley Burton have created a menu that reflects a reverent attitude toward food. James tells me that she grew up on a farm and understands the way food moves from its source to the kitchen.
When I speak with James, we discuss some of the influences that have shaped her craft, including books. Her collection includes an unedited copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Bauer helped McGee edit that monumental tome and it was one of the first books she gave James as a gift.
James says, “Yeah, that’s awesome. But you buy a lot of cookbooks—you just want to get your hands on all of it. And one year I just purged them, I kept my staples and some that were gifts, but I got rid of a lot, thinking I’ll make room for more. Then I didn’t start buying any more,” she says. “But, you always have those three or four that you love and give you what you need.
“Culinary Arts—I refer to that one a lot, every time I go to do a new menu—for components that go together and seasonal things. And I always have a copy of The Joy of Cooking around.” She laughs, “We have a torn-up one in a Ziploc bag, and we have a new version—just for the basics.
“And one that I’ve kept around just because I love it so much is Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.” Keller’s acclaimed Napa Valley restaurant has inspired James in many ways. “His meticulous care of everything—not just the food, but the grounds, the space, the people, the ingredients, the work environment—you know, he stands in there, and he watches plates go out and come back.” She’s dined there twice and met and spoke with Keller, who she describes as calm in the relatively hectic environment of the kitchen.
About her own restaurant and the importance of service, she says, “I told the staff, I can put the best food on the table every night, but if you’re not doing your job, and we don’t create an atmosphere that makes people want to come back, it’s just not going to happen.” Chefs keep a watchful eye on the dining area from the open kitchen, assuring that service by the well-trained staff is always on point.
I ate at JJ101 for dinner a few weekends ago. The butternut squash soup, pomegranate- and honey-glazed white pheasant breast, and seckel pear pandowdy with caramel ice cream comprised one of the best meals I’ve ever had. By that standard, I’d say James and staff succeed at setting the bar high for dining in Albuquerque.