If I could inspire a movement it would be free lunch for school kids no matter their age or family income. I believe kids have no real concept of money. I don’t think they should be put in that situation. If a child is denied lunch because of money they usually do not understand why they are being denied lunch. This can cause a number of problems in that child’s world. He could be made fun of by his peers, punished by his parents for trying to get food because he was hungry and not getting the nutrients that child needs to learn is essential. My mom works in the school district and knows for certain that the meal she provides is most often the only guaranteed meal in that child’s day and life. School lunch should be free. Expecting children to have this responsibility is not a fair situation to put them in.
I had the pleasure to interview Chef Jaimee Pepe. Originally from New Jersey, Chef Pepe always loved being in the kitchen and even took some cooking classes in high school. She received a certificate in culinary arts from a community college and planned to work in the hospitality industry in management. Moving to Southern Nevada to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she realized that she wanted to be a chef instead after attending for about a year. “I love being hands on,” she explained. “I had always been in the kitchen with my grandmother and mother. I have always had a love for food.” There was a change in her career course and Chef Pepe obtained a degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Las Vegas. Hired at Nob Hill for Chef Michael Mina at the MGM Grand, Chef Pepe was exposed to fine dining on the Las Vegas Strip. She returned to New York City to continue her culinary career under Chef Dan Silverman at the Standard Grill. But the bright lights and dining scene in Las Vegas called her name and Chef Pepe moved back to Southern Nevada. She was the executive sous chef at Giada’s on the Las Vegas Strip before becoming the first female executive room chef at Twin Creeks.
Thank you so much for joining us Jaimee. What inspired you to become a chef?
Cooking, eating, and family were the main things in my life as a child. My grandmother and grandfather on my Dads side were the cooks of the family. My Mother and Father were great cooks as well! I come from an Italian home so cooking Italian holds a dear place in my heart. My parents joke with me now that older of how I used to eat two dinners every night. I would eat with my grandparents who lived upstairs from us and again when it was time to eat with my family. I would finish both meals no problem. So my upbringing, my admiration of food, and love for a home cooked meal inspired me to be a chef.
What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
The journey thus far has been a roller coaster of a ride. Ever since I was 16 I have been working in a kitchen. My first kitchen job was in a small pizzeria in my home town of Bloomfield, New Jersey. I answered the phones, prepped the salads for the evening and helped the chef gather his mise en place for all sauces of the restaurant. From the pizzeria I worked at Subway for about 9 months and then a coffee shop after that. In the coffee shop I had the privilege of being the barista, waitress, and cook. It was a small place but it really opened my eyes of how a restaurant operates as whole. During this time I attended a local community college that had a certificate program in Culinary Arts. After completing the Certificate courses I decided I wanted to attend UNLV for hospitality management. So I moved across country to follow my dream. I attended UNLV for about a year and a half and decided I wanted to go back to culinary school so I went to The Arts Institute and completed my Associates Degree in Culinary Arts. I did my internship at Restaurant Charlies in the Palazzo. One of Charlie Trotter’s restaurants. I was honored to have met him before he unexpectedly passed away. This was able to open the door for me in obtaining my first fine dining restaurant job. I worked for Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern in the MGM Grand. I worked there for about a year and was getting a little home sick. So I moved back to New Jersey and commuted to New York City for four years working under Dan Silverman at the Standard Grill which is the restaurant at the Standard Hotel at the Highline. I started there as a line cook and was able to work my way up to Sous Chef after only 3 years. To me this was a major accomplishment. After 4 years of commuting and struggling to make ends meet, my wife and I decided to return to Las Vegas and make a life for us out here. I didn’t have a job lined up when we got here but I was fortunate to be hired by Caesars Entertainment to be on the opening team of Giada De Laurentiss first ever restaurant. It was an honor to work for her and for Caesars. I was hired first as a master cook but was promoted right before opening to Sous Chef. As the years went on I was promoted again to Executive Sous Chef. After working at Giada’s for 3 years I felt the need to break away and take my chances on my first ever Executive Chef position. And that’s where I am today. The Executive Room Chef of Twin Creeks Steakhouse in the Silverton Casino.
Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
I do not have a specific specialty yet. I get asked this question more than any other question. I do thoroughly enjoy cooking Italian Cuisine. My favorite dish to cook from start to finish is braised short ribs. The love and pride I put into making this dish is on another level. From the seasoning, searing, to the braising liquid and finally the finished product. It takes days and hours to prepare and complete but also years to perfect. This is why I am hesitant to call it my specialty. I am still working on perfecting it.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
After I graduated culinary school at the Arts Institute I was picked to go to NYC and take a tour of the James Beard House. This was just shy of 10 years ago. When I was there I said to myself that “I will one day cook here!” So about 5 years later I find myself working for Giada De Laurentiis. About a year and a half into working for her the opportunity presented itself. She asked myself and the Executive Chef at the time to do a dinner with her at the James Beard House. I couldn’t believe it. It really didn’t hit me until I was physically back at the Beard House. During the night of preparation I just looked around and took it all in. All the chefs and cooks that have cooked there before me. I said to myself “I DID IT!” and before I left I said the next time I’m here I will be cooking my food. We will see what the future will bring.
What is your definition of success?
Success to me is finding a balance. A balance of work and a balance of life. When you can be great at work but still be a great value to your family…that is success. This profession forces many sacrifices to be made and most of the time it’s the family that suffers.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
Failure is a strong word. I consider them lessons learned. Events that happen in your life that are negative need to be learned from and seen from a positive light. It won’t happen right at that moment but reflection should be part of the process. Take time to understand the “failure” and learn from it. Move forward in a direction that won’t lead you there again. If you let the failure consume you, that’s what you will become.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Twin Creeks is my first Executive Chef position. I have currently been here for a year now. I would consider this my project at the moment. A project of trying to find myself as a chef. What my abilities are and my creative side. In my past job positions individual creativity wasn’t something that was offered to me. It has always been for someone else’s “brand”. Now I’m just trying to define my own “brand”.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
For aspiring chefs out there I ask them to stay humble. It takes time and patience to become a chef. You should not come out of culinary school expecting to be a chef. The time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears need to be given. Never put a cap of the cup of knowledge. Once you stop learning is when you stop becoming a chef! Also, try to always force yourself to step outside your comfort zone and always challenge yourself.
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
I truly believe the perfect dish is always evolving and hasn’t really been created yet and maybe never will. I do believe you can create some great dishes that are close to perfection but there is always something that can be done differently. I do believe these dishes need to have the perfect balance. Salty, acidity, texture, ratio of ingredients. But there is always something you as the chef or other chefs could do differently to make it better. That is the beauty of the food world. You can believe you have created the perfect dish and someone else can make changes or even learn something new. Bouncing ideas around can create new dishes and inventions so the perfect dish is something we all strive to achieve and it keeps the mind trying to create it.
If is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. What does this saying mean to you?
Food is a celebration. Food is found at most events, birthdays, weddings, celebrations of life when a loved one is lost. Food is one thing everyone in the world has in common. My most enjoyable times are the moments before family/friends gathering for a dinner. Preparing food for friends and family brings such pleasure to me. Knowing soon we will be taking time out of the daily grind to be together and enjoy good food and good people. One of my most recent memorable moments was at my wife’s boss’s house. She invited us and a few other people to join her and her family in enjoying the experience of Chinese HOT POT. I used the word experience because that is just what it was. I come from a big family that has always come together over food but this was something special. We all gathered around the table which had this elaborate spread of meats, fish, crabs, and vegetables and in the center of the table were pots of delicious broth with spices and herbs just boiling away. I had never taken part in something like this before. They encouraged us to select your meats and such and place them in the broths to cook… slowly fortifying as the night went on. They amount of love shown from the food to the alcohol and cheering one another for being there was so incredible. I said to my wife it was like we were in an episode of one of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows opening our eyes to how the world perceives and welcomes people and food into their lives. I will never forget that day.
What are the “5 things I wish someone told me before I became a chef?
Five things I wish I knew….
Growing up I had a huge family. Always together, dinner every night together, and never missed a holiday or birthday. I wish someone would have told me all the sacrifices I would have to make when you become a Chef. Don’t get me wrong, I love making sure all my guest enjoy their holiday to the best of my ability. I figure, it’s an honor to serve the guests that choose to come into my restaurant and spend the holidays here with us. I’ve been in this industry for quite some time now so I am used to not celebrating holidays on the actual holiday but there is still a void deep down inside.
2nd. YELP (or any accessible website to post positive or negative reviews)
I wish someone would have told me how much of an impact (mostly negative) YELP would have on the restaurant business. There are many positive reviews that make their way on to YELP. YELP also has a dark side in my opinion. There can be 1000 great reviews for your restaurant but if there is just 1 bad review it can make or break your business, especially if you are an independent owner. You can spend your whole life savings to open your dream restaurant and finally get that chance. You have one bad day of service, and that one person (who’s not even a critic) will put your establishment on blast and ruin everything you worked for. To be honest, the people who abuse YELP in that aspect have impacted my choice of not opening my own restaurant.
3rd. Mental/ physical ware and tare
Being a Chef means WORK! WORK WORK WORK. When opening a restaurant for example, there is no stopping. There are 19 hour days and 12 day weeks if you catch my drift. When people use the phrase “back to the grind” being a chef is grinding work. No matter how many years in the industry, the throbbing sensation in your feet after 12 hours is like no other. The lower back pain from never having the right shoes is a constant. The mental strain being a chef also takes its toll. Every day is a different day when it comes to service. Yes we make the same food but it’s never the same pace or vibe. You have to manage what kind of mood your cooks will come in that day, or is this day going to be the day where everyone complains. Even what mood I will be in or if personal life is getting in the way and trying to check all of it at door and keeping face for the sake of the business. It’s a daily battle, pick and choosing which battle to battle…LOL.
4th. Culinary School
I wish someone would have told me how much Debt culinary school would put me in and that I did not need to attend to make it as a chef. I am very thankful I went to school and I would not be in the position I am in in such a short period of time. I constantly think back to culinary school and how much it taught me but it’s just the fundamentals. It gives you a very minute taste of what is to come in the restaurant world. One thing I hear constantly in my head is one of my instructors telling his class that when we graduate we are not chefs, it take years and tears to become a chef. He always told us to stay humble. That is probably the best lesson I learned in school and out of school. I do know many who are in my position with no schooling and are living debt free. It must be a nice feeling. Student loans are heavy bourdon to carry and you will carry them for most of your life. But fortunately these are the paths I took and I am super thankful for them. I would not be married to the love of my life if it took a different route.
If someone told me that I would obtain lifelong friends and maybe even family being in the restaurant business I would not have believed them. The amount of love and support that in the service industry is amazing. I may not speak to all of the people I have worked with in the past on a consistent basis but knowing that if I picked up the phone or vis a versa it would be like no time has passed by. For example, I worked for Giada in Las Vegas for 3 year. (Not very long). The staff there (not management) is about 90% of the same staff from when they opened. We recently had one of the original cooks lose his battle with cancer. This team or FAMILY I should say gathered everyone for a memorial for him. They reached out to me even though I hadn’t worked there in over a year. Of course I went. This team was my life for 3 long years. The impact they made on my life and career is forever lasting. The restaurant world seems very big but believe me it is very small. The paths that cross over the years can overlap in so many different ways. Or you know someone who works with someone. I am truly honored to be a part of the restaurant business.
If you could inspire a movement, what would that be?
If I could inspire a movement it would be free lunch for school kid no matter their age or family income. I believe kids have no real concept of money. I don’t think they should be put in that situation. If a child is denied lunch because of money they usually do not understand why they are being denied lunch. This can cause a number of problems in that child’s world. He could be made fun of by his peers, punished by his parents for trying to get food because he was hungry and not getting the nutrients that child needs to learn is essential. My mom works in the school district and knows for certain that the meal she provides is most often the only guaranteed meal in that child’s day and life. School lunch should be free. Expecting children to have this responsibility is not a fair situation to put them in.
Whom would you love to cook for and why?
I would love to cook with Eric Ripert rather than cook for him. I would love to share a vision on a composed dish together. I think that would be amazing. He is the chef that said to never stop learning and that resonates in me. So to learn a few things from him would be an honor. Now if I had to choose anyone to cook for it would be my late grandmother from my father’s side. I was 12 years old when she passed so I never got a chance to cook for her. I want to show her what she inspired me to be and do. That would be the ultimate perfect circle.