Meet the people who grow the food. Talk to farmers. Taste the food on the farm. Learn how it’s grown, learn how it tastes raw and how what the farmer does affects the flavor.
Eat at great restaurants. And not just the restaurants with a big name. I mean the inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the little local favorite, the neighborhood haunt. Some of the best food in the world is street food.
Play with your food. Explore different flavors. Experiment. New chefs want to do everything right, and they get scared to try something that might not work.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Jill Freiberg who opened her first restaurant while still in college. The Harmony Cafe in Yellow Springs, Ohio served a global menu made entirely from ingredients produced by local farmers. After college, Chef Jill returned to New York City and worked for some of the more notable names in catering including Abigail Kirsch and Glorious Foods. More recently, Chef Jill opened Jillicious Foods & Events. You can learn more about her food at JilliciousFoods.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
My mother — who did many, many, many things incredibly well — was a terrible cook. In fact, my mother came from a long line of women who couldn’t cook. I started cooking when I was around 12, in part because there was only so much Chinese takeout I could eat, but also because I loved exploring different flavors and different ingredients. My mother bought me a wok for my 13th birthday. I got a book of recipes from the public library, and every day after school, I would cook for my friends. I would take the subway all over New York City and buy unusual ingredients not knowing what they were and learn how to cook with them.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I’m not sure I would say I have a specific type of food. I’ve done a lot of different cuisines in my career. The one thing I would say they all have in common is a focus on the ingredients and where the food comes from.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
My senior year in high school, I wasn’t ready to go to college. My parents weren’t about to let me do nothing so my mother applied for (and interviewed at) New York Restaurant School on my behalf then announced I would be attending. What was the lesson I learned from this? I have no idea. But thank you, Mom!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
When I started, there weren’t a lot of women chefs. I didn’t know that going into the industry. For the first few years, I struggled to move up. It was harder as a woman to be recognized. There was nowhere to go, no one to talk to. Even the women in the industry at the time didn’t want to hear about it. I’m really glad that women coming up now don’t have to face that — at least not to the same extent — the way that we did. I am grateful for all the women in my generation who fought to change how the industry sees women.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
At Jillicious Foods & Events, we are constantly creating dishes for clients. We start by talking with each new client about family food traditions and childhood food memories. We talk about favorite restaurants. We discuss the foods they love, the foods they don’t particularly like, and the foods they want to try. Then we create a dish that tells a story — a unique story — about the client.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Brunch at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans is a great meal for me. Or dim sum at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, one of the oldest restaurants in New York City. A burger with crispy french fries is also a favorite of mine. For many years, if I could pick one restaurant in New York, and I picked it every year for my birthday, The Quilted Giraffe and then March. A perfect meal is anything cooked by Chef Wayne Nish.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration for creating comes from the food. Like any artist, I take note of the things around me that I see or taste or smell and want to include in my work. I walk down the streets in New York — Mott Street in Chinatown or Court Street in Brooklyn — and see different ingredients I want to experiment with. New York is this vast cultural mélange and I am inspired by all of it.
It’s not just the city, I lived in the Hudson Valley for fifteen years and learned so much about farming and farmers and the people who raise cattle and sheep and goats. It sparked a profound appreciation for the products we use and a desire to honor those ingredients.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
This last year was a terrible year for everyone. But it did come with a silver lining. It was also the first time in a long time that we weren’t in the kitchen cooking twelve hours a day. We used the unexpected time to design and build a kitchen of our very own with floor to ceiling windows and an indoor herb garden. We are also starting a monthly Chef’s Table. Follow us on Instagram (instagram.com/jilliciousfoods) for announcements about that and other new events in the space.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
You are going to work a ton of hours when you first start out in this industry. It’s physical labor. People don’t think about it that way, but it is. Your wrists are going to hurt, your knees are going to hurt. Find really good shoes. That helps.
Find a mentor. Someone whose food you love, whose attitude you love, who inspires you. Watch them. Watch how they handle food. Watch how they create.
Lastly, use your vacation time wisely. Do things you love and get some rest.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Learn how to sharpen your own knives. I was ten years into my career before I learned how to properly stone my knives.
- Meet the people who grow the food. Talk to farmers. Taste the food on the farm. Learn how it’s grown, learn how it tastes raw and how what the farmer does affects the flavor.
- Eat at great restaurants. And not just the restaurants with a big name. I mean the inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the little local favorite, the neighborhood haunt. Some of the best food in the world is street food.
- Play with your food. Explore different flavors. Experiment. New chefs want to do everything right, and they get scared to try something that might not work.
- Be nice to your dishwashers. They work really, really hard and they are the backbone of the industry.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
As a catering company, we pride ourselves in never serving the same menu twice. However, we do have a few signature dishes that clients request all the time.
The wild mushroom crostini with crispy shallots is one. We take foraged mushrooms from the Hudson Valley, slow roast them, and serve on a roasted garlic infused olive oil crostini. I think of it as our sleeper hit. Clients don’t say anything when I first suggest the dish, but they absolutely fall in love with it at the tasting. The flavors are simple and earthy and everything just works perfectly together.
We also do a tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, herb infused Spanish olive oil, crispy fried black garlic chips, and preserved egg yolk. I notice I’m developing a bit of a mushroom theme here.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Learning where food comes from would make a huge difference in how people in this country eat. It’s not that people want to eat unhealthy food, but food deserts and food insecurity are real problems, and for too many Americans, barriers exist to finding fresh, local food.
I worked as the executive chef at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, New York teaching kids where food comes from. For these kids, food comes from a supermarket. They had never grown food in a garden or eaten food they picked themselves or seen a cow. Learning where food comes from starts the process of learning how to eat better.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!