Beloved chef Jennifer James, formerly of Graze, is back on Albuquerque’s food scene after a year-long hiatus. Last week the Alibi spoke with James about her current stint at Chef du Jour, why she left Graze and her plans to open another restaurant in the near future.
So you’re back in Burque. What beckoned you home?
I love to cook, so I was definitely missing cooking. Not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy almost a year of not working! I like Albuquerque because it’s just coming onto the food scene, so it’s exciting to be a part of that. I never thought about leaving Albuquerque—just vacation, getting away, eating elsewhere.
What are your plans now that you’re back?
I have a partnership with my sister [chef Kelly Burton], Nelle [Bauer] and Buddy [Murzyn, owner of Chef du Jour]. Coming to Chef du Jour and cooking, it’s like home. It’s where I started; where I formed most of my cooking beliefs and skills that I still use. It was natural. Chef du Jour is a unique concept to Albuquerque. I don’t think there’s another restaurant that changes its menu every week. Nelle, Kelly and I have another thing in the works, as well. My vision is to do a few more things and keep them small, neighborhood-
Does this mean you’re opening another restaurant?
Yup. Probably in the next six to seven months.
Can you divulge details, or is it top-secret?
We have a location. We’re in the process of getting our beer and wine license, and we’re still deciding on a name. We have two or three that we’re debating.
How long ago was it that you worked at Chef du Jour? Back then, were you fresh-faced and brand-new?
Oh, yeah. I moved to Albuquerque, worked 11 months in a hotel (where I met Buddy), and then I worked here. The owner’s name was Connie Allgood. She opened this place not too long [before], and we only served lunch when I started. I spent a lot of time eating out and delving into cookbooks. Connie would give me homework. That was 12 years ago.
Was cooking a love for you since you were a little girl?
I was always in the kitchen, and my family was always around food. My part-time high school jobs were either working on the farm for a relative or frying donuts at the grocery store.
You worked on farms as a kid?
Yeah. Walking rows of beans and riding on the back of a tractor while my grandma’s going around, watering the hogs.
Chef du Jour, you said, was where your cooking philosophies started to gel. What are those philosophies?
Clean food and clean cooking, first and foremost. Fresh and local, if you can get it. I try to remain within the seasons. It’s hard because now you can find asparagus in December and raspberries year-round, and then people want it year-round. And a clean kitchen, a clean staff—spiritually, physically. It comes out in the food.
At Graze, you were famous for your deviled eggs and desserts. Are you going to revive any of the favorites from your old menus?
I don’t want to, because this is a new chapter. I learned a lot, did a lot, loved doing it. I’d like to start fresh and new. But I know there are things people love and will request, so I’ll always do certain things, like ice cream. I’ve since found out there’s somebody else in town serving deviled eggs. They’re even saying, "We have Jennifer James’ deviled eggs on our menu."
Is that even legal?
Yeah, it is. For now. There are a few cases of chefs suing for intellectual property. But, you know, it’s a deviled egg.
Will your own name be in the name of your new restaurant?
No. I think that’s served me really well. I think knowing who cooks your food is important. But my success has always been because of who I’ve had helping me.
How did you and Buddy decide to collaborate at Chef du Jour?
I know Buddy loves this as a profession, and he’s not in it to make a buck. He’s really conscious about what goes on the table. It’s not about "how much can we charge for this?" It’s about giving people what they want—something good, and staying in business for years to come. That’s the difference between my past partnership and this partnership. Buddy’s been here for eight years. I see the same customers that I saw 12 years ago, which says a lot. If we decide, down the road, to do our own things, it won’t be because someone’s trying to get rich and sell out.
It sounds like you stand on the integrity of your business and your food. Is this why you decided to leave Graze?
We [with former partner Michael Chesley] didn’t have the same passion or beliefs. There were things I wouldn’t be a part of; there were things he wouldn’t be a part of, like organic chicken. We just didn’t have the same business beliefs. We both wanted to pay the bills and be successful, just in different ways.
Rumor has it you were in California for a while.
Nelle and I went and cooked.
Nelle, from the kitchen: What is it with all of the rumors?
Jennifer: I know! I hear all of these things, and I’m like, "Really, I went and did that?" I didn’t go to Europe and I was in California for a weekend. We cooked one course at a six-course dinner for the wine program at U.C. Davis. I was on the East Coast for six months with Nelle. We road-tripped back through Atlanta and New Orleans; spent some time in Costa Rica and the Midwest, but that’s been it.
You’ve become somewhat of a living legend here. Do you get recognized and stalked on the street by people begging for recipes?
People ask for recipes, but I never write anything down. Going out is a little weird, but people are always really nice.
It’s not a burden?
No—unless I’m going to the spa and getting in the hot tub, or ... going to the dentist; someone’s flossing my teeth, and says, "My daughter’s a chef"—I can’t talk, so it’s a little awkward, but … it’s good. I had a really good advertising guy when I had Restaurant Jennifer James. He said, "Your name will be known in town."
How does it feel to be a woman in a field that’s male-dominated and highly competitive?
I never think about it until I see the cover of Food and Wine, with the 10 best chefs of the year, and there’s one woman. It’s obvious they tried to find one woman. A lot of my mentors are females. This is a generalization, and I’ll take any nasty phone calls if I get ’em, but I think women care more. They have a better touch with the food; think more about the process and the end result. I don’t know a lot of female chefs who are out for the fame and the glory.