This interview is a sidebar accompanying “Eating from Nose to Tail.” Find the article here.
» buzz: How did you get to Champaign?
» Jessica Gorin: Jonathan [my husband] got a position at the University. We met in grad school at UC Davis, and then I decided that I didn’t really want to go the academic route and wanted to figure out what I wanted to do, and I really liked cooking. Davis is kind of like Champaign where there’s one super fancy restaurant and a bunch of other smaller restaurants, and I went to the super fancy restaurant and said I’d work for free … I wanted to make sure that I wanted to work in a kitchen because I had never worked in one. So I said, ‘I’ll work for free. I just want to check it out before I put down $40,000 on culinary school,’ and the chef said, ‘You don’t have to work for free. You can work for minimum wage ($6.25).’ I did that for a year and then started working in Napa Valley. After I worked there for a while, I moved to San Francisco, where I worked for six or seven years until Jonathan got the job offer here. We came here because of him, and I was a little bit freaked out because I’ve been cooking too long to go back and be a line cook, and I didn’t think that there would be an opportunity for me to cook here — it was sort of serendipitous that I ended up meeting Cody (one of the investors of Big Grove Tavern). They were planning to shut down the restaurant that was in this location and wanted to open a whole new restaurant, so it just kind of worked out.
» buzz: Your food has a very familial, nostalgic sort of feel and taste to it. Have you always cooked that way or have you picked up different methods along the way?
» JG: I think I have a distinct food and plating style, and it’s really ingredient driven. While I have a lot of respect for people who do molecular gastronomy-type things, that’s not what I like to eat regularly. I would say the most important holiday for me growing up, and still is, is Thanksgiving, and it’s a very cooking-oriented holiday. I think the part that I like isn’t necessarily the sitting down and eating part. It’s the whole cooking for days, and everyone is in the kitchen working on stuff. I want my food to convey that sort of together, familial, nostalgia, flavor memories, but when you’re going out to eat, you don’t want it to be something you could’ve done at home. So, I want to take flavors that feel really homey and something that makes you close your eyes and go ‘mmm, yum,’ but do it in a way that you’ll never do at home. I think food should sort of embrace you, and I try and do that with all the dishes. I want there to be all these different flavors that work together, but not a circus of flavors that confuses you.
Obviously, you’re always influenced by all the kitchens you go through, and I think the kitchen I probably spent the most time at was Domaine Chandon. I was there for two and a half years, and I think that was very formative in terms of how I thought about food and flavor pairings, and while the food was always really amazing, if you actually broke it down and thought about what was on the plate, there was never anything that wasn’t accessible. You would have this amazing plate that had so much flavor, but you’d look back and it would be scallops, an onion tart, bacon and port sauce. It wasn’t a huge list of millions of ingredients and chemicals. It was four or five flavors that they built something amazing with. And I think that’s something I try to do with my food. I want the parts to be all good, but I want the sum of the parts to be more than you would imagine was there when you see the list of what’s actually on the plate.