It is the most magical career that will open doors in the most unexpected of places and craft lifelong friends. I have friends all over the world because of my culinary career and I have traveled to every continent. Because you share blood, sweat and tears with your food colleagues — they have seen you at your best and your worst — these are YOUR PEOPLE. Even if you leave the kitchen environment, you have a social and moral responsibility to stay hospitable. Being gracious and kind is free.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jill Overdorf.
An executive chef for more than two decades, Jill Overdorf is Naturipe Farms’ Director of Business Development for Foodservice and their Corporate Chef. After attending UMASS-Amherst and graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America, she launched her career in New York City by helping to open Osteria del Circo, the sister restaurant of Le Cirque. She has worked as the Executive Sous Chef at the Telluride Film Festival and opening Executive Banquet Chef at The Getty Museum, Brentwood, CA; Executive Chef at DreamWorks Studios, Burbank, CA; Executive Chef at McMurdo Station in Antarctica and Executive Sous Chef at the Ross School in Easthampton, Long Island.
Prior to joining Naturipe, Jill was Director of Business and Culinary development with Coosemans LA Shipping in Los Angeles, CA. In addition to her position with Naturipe Farms, Jill is Vice Chair of the Leadership Board of the LA Food Policy Council. She is a former Board member of both the Center for Growing Talent by PMA and the Produce Marketing Association and a Board member and volunteer with a number of Los Angeles regional animal rescue organizations. She has visited all seven continents and has found many favorite places around the world to eat and cook.
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?
I grew up in a Navy family and I was surrounded by events that the Officer’s wives were having to create connections and boost morale. This was in the late ’60s in Coronado, California and I understood that food and entertaining were vehicles to being social and connected and part of a larger community — this was my perception at age 5! Now, fifty years later — I realize that all of this is still true. The discussions that are shared while gathered around a table and a good meal, form relationships and networks that build lifelong community.
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 love fresh seasonal produce and game. Both are part of our country’s heritage, and I grew up with both because of my family. My grandfather was a conservationist and a hunter, and I was taught very early on about land and water management and appreciating the bounty of wild places; trout fishing, hunting turkey and game birds and wild harvest were all reasons to walk in the woods. As I grew older — but not yet driving — the closest market to our New England home was a farm stand that showcased seasonal items. While limited in scope, I learned very early on the flavor benefits of fresh summer sweet corn and sun-ripened melons. Traveling added an entirely new twist to this appreciation and I quickly learned the value of Maine lobster and fresh Alaskan Copper River salmon and the different flavors of oysters from a variety of waters. To celebrate a food based on regionality and locality makes it so very special and further underscores the adage ‘if it grows together, it goes together’. Now, when I travel, I love finding kitchens that honor regional heritage and I can always learn something new!
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?
Oh my — there are always stories of screw-ups, humor and interest. Probably my biggest and most embarrassing confession is making a mistake while working as the Banquet Chef at the Getty Museum as we were opening the facility. Leading up to the opening, the anticipated guest count was approximately 100,000 people a day and more than half of those people had pre-ordered box lunches as their meal. This was done to remove some of the pressure from our grab and go locations and the restaurant and to provide a great guest experience. One of the side items in each box lunch was a salad made with fresh veggies and elbow macaroni — easy, inexpensive and palatable for most guests. As I made the calculations for ordering, I estimated 50,000 lunches per day, seven days a week, 2 ounces of macaroni for every salad, divided by 16 ounces in a pound: 43,750 pounds of macaroni were needed. And that’s what I ordered. Well, in my haste and fatigue, I forgot that the recipe calculation was COOKED macaroni — and pasta triples in size from dry. After receiving many pallets of elbow macaroni, I (and everyone on my team!!) realized my mistake. We had macaroni for every box lunch we made for many weeks later! Lesson learned — if you’re going to make a mistake ordering ingredients, do it with a durable item that keeps well and is relatively inexpensive.
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?
Being a newly graduated cook is thankless work of long hours, little gratitude and tired feet. My first job was for a very famous New York restaurant family, and I was a part of the opening team of their new restaurant. I arrived at work at 6:30am and often didn’t leave until 7 or 8pm — six days a week. The hours were grueling, the expectation to learn thoroughly and quickly was high and the pay was practically non-existent. I lived in a fifth-floor walkup studio on Lexington and 26th — across from the Armory and I walked twenty-five blocks back and forth every day to work. I had no life, and I couldn’t have been happier. While broke, I always had great food in our family meals and a community of like-minded crazy culinarians. Once I learned to navigate NYC, I loved the city and never walked home the same way twice. Being able to state that I had helped to open a high-profile restaurant in New York City was always an advantage. I cut my culinary teeth in Manhattan and there was a price to pay for that, but it was worth it.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Authenticity is the key to captivation. When one makes a meal, hosts an event, creates a singular dish that is memorable — there is ALWAYS an intention behind the concept. A mix of complementary flavors and techniques, a seasonal accent, or a motivation of bringing people together around a table will always create appreciation. Use items that are approachable (though not always known) for your guests. Use ingredients that are flavorful and items that balance and yet complement one another, and cook with intention — those four elements will almost always create a crowd pleaser.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
My perfect meal is not just about the food. The perfect meal is a work of art that incorporates place and food; beverage and company; conversation and respect. If dining privately, there can be an ease of sharing and breaking bread together — if being served, there is such talent found in a good host for the table that makes the courses magically appear and disappear, seamless in their transition. I have eaten in many Michelin starred restaurants and yet one of my favorite meals was on a small island in Galway Bay at a picnic table with foods that had been harvested from the local sea and the garden and made on a wood stove by a passionate home cook. For dessert, we shared a dram of whiskey as the sun set over the bay and I bit into a warm plum galette.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Nature, history, heritage, travel and flavor are all inspirations. Having grown up in New England, there are a lot of foods founded in the tradition of local bounty and the etiquette of time and place. Once I started traveling, I tasted everything I could in every place I could; if the locals were eating it, I wanted it and this started to form a more global acceptance and sensibility of food, people and place. Understanding the nuances of different cultures because of land, religion, water, or government allowed me to have a glimpse into cultures that were not my own. Through this lens, I was able to see the connectivity of food for all who shared a place at the table together and the inherent generosity and pride that people felt about their heritage.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We are always cooking things up at Naturipe. Keep your eyes out on our social media channels for updates.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Travel, eat well, exercise and get at least six hours of sleep. Feed the other parts of your life — whatever makes you happy, fit that into your world. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are and who you respect and let the energy be reciprocal.
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.
- Buy the good shoes.
As a chef, you are on your feet at least seven (or more) hours a day schlepping, walking, lifting and moving. While you may be broke, there is no reason for you to be BROKEN in ten years. Buy the best shoes you can afford — borrow money from your favorite aunt — drop at least 200 dollars into a pair of supportive, non-skid shoes that are leather. Buy two pairs. Buy a new pair when the first pair is broken and rotate your shoes. You are ensuring your posture, health and safety for the next fifty years by investing in a good foundation. If you ruin your feet, you WILL NOT be able to cook.
2. Be kind to everyone on your team.
You will socialize and work with each other. You all must rely on each other for a hundred hours a week — don’t bring in additional drama to a professional setting where these people are your family.
3. It will be hard.
There will be weeks, months and sometimes years when you miss every family vacation, every reunion of friends, every wedding and any holiday where everyone else is eating to celebrate. You are the help — not the guest — always. AND, when you go to the homes of friends or family, they will hesitate to cook for you because well, you’re the cook. (Dear friends and family — trust me — I will go Pavlovian over a PB & J that I didn’t have to make.)
4. Keep learning and continue to add to your repertoire.
As you mature, the goal is to ease your way away from the hot line with grace and appreciation. Once you speak the language of food, hospitality and community, the world is your dining room, and you should be able to embrace the entire global diaspora of food. Learn the numbers, know how to read a P & L, understand how to calculate food costs and be an advocate for yourself. No one wants an old line cook with a bad back and a penchant for worker’s comp — but executive foodservice DOES desire a former chef who understands flavor, numbers and people — with an open spirit.
5. It is the most magical career that will open doors in the most unexpected of places and craft lifelong friends.
I have friends all over the world because of my culinary career and I have traveled to every continent. Because you share blood, sweat and tears with your food colleagues — they have seen you at your best and your worst — these are YOUR PEOPLE. Even if you leave the kitchen environment, you have a social and moral responsibility to stay hospitable. Being gracious and kind is free.
What’s the one dish people must try if they visit your current/past establishment?
Personally, I make a mean Milk Punch that I serve at holiday parties — Bourbon, milk, real vanilla, and ice cream. I also have evolved a delicious Posole Verde which is a multi-hour recipe…but SO worth the effort. It’s my holiday go to.
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.
There are three things that I’d like to create:
- Children need to learn that fruits and vegetables can taste delicious — without ranch dressing or other sauces. We need to create memorable flavor profiles in the produce world that encourage increased consumption of fresh, well-prepared fruits and vegetables. We need to ensure that kids reach for fresh berries as often as they reach for Flaming Hot Cheetos, and the access and the pricing for both need to be on even playing fields. Teach delicious eating — and we will have a healthier next generation.
- As a country, I’d like to see more spontaneous kindness. Making a meal for a senior neighbor, buying a sandwich for a homeless person, sending a prepared meal to a busy single mom. Food is an incredible universal language and a community builder; it is very difficult to be angry with someone who just shared their garden’s bounty.
- The sense that the work that Jose Andres does is not an anomaly. DC Central Kitchen, Jose Andres’ World Kitchen and countless unsung kitchens around the world who are providing good food on a shoestring budget should be uplifted and championed. NO ONE in our country should be food insecure and we need to do better.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!