I wish I knew how little being a chef has to do with actual physical cooking and how it has more to do with being able to build a loyal, hardworking and trustworthy team. To be a chef you need to be able to teach, support, nurture, listen, and push your team…cooking is the easy part in my opinion.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dan Jackson, Director of Culinary at Fields Good Chicken.
With experience working through every station at Eleven Madison Park, and a 6-year tenure at Union Square Hospitality Group, Dan Jackson joined the FGC team as a seasoned industry veteran in 2018.
As the Director of Culinary for Fields Good Chicken, Dan works in tandem with Field on menu development and oversees the culinary team at FGC’s locations, also playing a role in ideating future menu expansions and limited time offerings. Dan supports in forming and maintaining FGC’s farm partnerships and sourcing practices. He visits FGC’s farm partners regularly to ensure the facilities are up to FGC’s standards.
Dan is a Chapel Hill, NC native and a dedicated Tarheel supporter. He lives in NYC with his wife Stephanie and their three children.
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?
Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’ve always believed that food connects people and is a great form of expression. I’ve always loved food, and I really enjoyed watching people in my family cook for years, so I started learning. When it came time, I traveled to New York to learn from some of the best chefs in the world. I worked at Eleven Madison Park and with Union Square Hospitality Group, where I flexed my muscles in both flavor and plating. Every experience I’ve had in restaurant kitchens has been inspiring as I continue this journey.
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?
My focus at Fields Good Chicken is, well, chicken! I take my fine dining experience and work with Field Failing, our CEO and Founder, to create really flavorful and fueling recipes for our guests. When I met Field and the team, it just seemed like such a natural fit, because he was open to new flavor combinations and techniques, and he was excited to see what we’d come up with together. We have our menu staples, but I love to play around with our seasonal dishes. We launched butternut squash soup and smoked maple chipotle wings for the winter — both are complex in flavor but healthy and easy for to-go lunches and dinners. I’m also from North Carolina, and like to incorporate some of my favorite southern-inspired recipes into our menu, like cornbread!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
When I was working at Union Square Events, the Executive Chef John Karangis approached me and said he needed me for an event that was very exclusive and he couldn’t give me further details. So, later that day we were getting ready to go and he tells me that we are going to be cooking dinner in a private apartment for Obama!
Obviously, the security was going to be tight and on the way to the dinner (during rush hour) I realized I didn’t have my ID on me. My heart sank as I was confident that they wouldn’t let me go upstairs.
Luckily, security wasn’t as tight as I thought and I was let through. We cooked dinner for 50 people in a small NYC apartment while being watched by the secret service and hearing Obama through the walls.
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?
I learned to cook in a “fine diner” in Charlottesville, VA called Bizou. My boss was the brother-in-law of the chef at Felidia, a fancy restaurant in NYC. He sent me up there to learn from the “big boys,” and I remember what an intimidating experience it was. I remember the cooks laughing at the knife I was using, and it seemed like I was a minor leaguer who just got called-up to the majors. I did my best to put my head down and work, and by the end of the week I think I earned their respect. It was a great learning experience for me and it gave me the confidence that I could do this for a living. I’ll never forget Lidia Bastianach came up to me while I was making a Caesar salad…I plated it and she said, “taste your food.” To this day, that is the best piece of advice I’ve gotten from a chef.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Such a good question! We’ve seen so many waves of what guests want over the past couple of years, but at FGC, our Bueno Bowl with flavorful chicken thigh, brown rice, black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, and maple chipotle sauce is our most popular dish by far. It’s hearty but won’t weigh you down during the day, and while it is familiar, there are a few FGC signatures (like the maple chipotle sauce) that make it unique and have people coming back for it. Create something accessible with a little something special is a good formula to follow, but at the end of the day it just needs to be delicious.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Totally depends on my mood! Right now, in the current climate, I’m gravitating toward comfort foods, and one of my favorites is Shrimp and Grits. It is versatile (swap shrimp for a braised meat or vegetable ragout; swap grits for polenta, etc.), nostalgic for me, and something I can make for my family. I love having the grits leftover to griddle and top with leftovers, and the shrimp to repurpose throughout the week into sandwiches or salads.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My roots, the flavor combinations I’ve learned throughout my years in restaurant kitchens, and seasonal produce provide inspiration. I love to turn a dish on its head, and to use beautiful fruits and veggies in interesting applications. At FGC, I also find my inspiration coming from our guests. What is going to help the nine-to-fiver get through the day? How can I make something familiar and delicious that a family of four can enjoy for dinner? We think about our guests when we create our menu, so they’re always pushing me.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Our “damn good chicken” is all roasted right now. We’ve played around with wet brines, dry brines and more for our signature recipes, but have stuck to our roots of roasting our preparations to-date. A few years ago, I took a trip to Europe and had the most delicious rotisserie chicken, and as our menu continues to evolve at FGC, I’ve started experimenting with a rotisserie. Our whole bird offering is one of our most popular menu items, and I think providing a few different preparations of a whole bird will not only expand our options for guests, but will also open up doors for a variety of seasonings and more! I’m excited to continue experimenting with it, and look forward to introducing rotisserie chicken at our 6 locations in the future.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Buy orthopedic socks! I didn’t know they existed but…they are so helpful. In all seriousness though, what is really difficult about this job is that there is always a challenge. We are always pushing ourselves to keep up with or ahead of the current trends, and there will always be more to do. The best way to avoid burnout in this industry is to be proud of what you’re making, make what you love, and come to terms with the fact that there will likely never be a day that you feel like you’ve done 100% of what there is to do…because it just isn’t feasible, and that’s OK!
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.
1. I wish I knew how little being a chef has to do with actual physical cooking and how it has more to do with being able to build a loyal, hardworking and trustworthy team. To be a chef you need to be able to teach, support, nurture, listen, and push your team…cooking is the easy part in my opinion.
2. I wish I knew that you would never reach a point where you think “wow I made it.” In the “chef world,” you’re constantly having to improve and learn; you can always get better at something. I love this part about being a chef, but I don’t know if you can ever really “make it.” An old culinary instructor said: “one day you’ll wake up and realize you are a chef,” and that happened for me after I had been cooking in restaurants for 12 years.
3. I wish I knew that I was better in the front of house than the back of house. I love speaking with guests and getting their opinions on dishes, the restaurant ambiance and any recommendations on how I’m able to improve. My favorite part of this business is creating a positive atmosphere in the restaurant that rubs off on our team and our guests.
4. When I first started cooking, I thought there was one path that would make you the best in the business. But I feel like now, in the world of food, there are so many different avenues you can take from fine dining to fast casual to educational. You don’t just have to be a fine dining chef in the kitchen to work in fast casual. I’m glad that it kind of evolved that way. Look at my career I’ve done fine dining, fine diner, catering, chef at MoMa, chef of a fast-casual — it is limitless.
5. Lastly, I wish I knew that orthopedic socks existed. They really help with circulation and it helps when being on your feet all day! I’m not a spring chicken anymore…I need all of the support I can get.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Such a tough question! I always encourage people to go with a plate. You can mix and match our signature dishes so ordering a plate gives you a good overview of what we’re all about. First, choose your chicken preparation (herb roasted breast, mojo thigh, or pulled BBQ), then two sides (right now we have: roasted broccoli, southwestern black beans, beets and blue cheese, smashed potatoes with olive oil, charred sweet potatoes, green beans with brussels, cabbage, and date vinaigrette, and our signature cauliflower mac & cheese), and finally, pick a sauce (I love our green goddess).
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.
I would love to help make it easier for people to become citizens in this country. Some of the best cooks that I’ve ever worked with can’t find jobs because the current citizenship process is so complex.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!