Like many African-American chefs, Jesse Jones developed his knowledge of cooking from his mom and Nana.
“There were amazing cooks in Snow Hill, North Carolina,” he said. They were hands-on, no-measuring, take-no-prisoners-with-the-soul-food kind of cooks. And though he grew up in North Jersey, Jones parlayed that love of cooking and knowledge of southern cuisine into what he calls southern cooking with a French twist.
“Nearly every black chef can cook soul food-fry chicken,” Jones said, but the challenge these days is how to maintain that level of expectation and flavor by substituting those traditional high-fat ingredients for healthier fare.
Jones literally started in the culinary world as a dishwasher, and endured the “hell’s kitchens” of several chefs before launching out on his own, with Chef Jesse Jones Catering.
“I took a lot of the negative energy and turned it into some positive,” he said.
He said he loves what he does and loves entertaining people with his food, another gift he received from his mother.
“My mom loved to entertain,” he said, “and I loved to help her.”
Chef Jones offered a few sage pieces of advice for entertaining this holiday season.
“You don’t want to run out of food,” he offered as his first words of wisdom.
“If you are serving hor d’oeuvres, determine how many pieces will each person have and then add some extras.”
Another huge mistake people make is failing to prep items ahead of time, believing they will have plenty of time the day of the dinner party. Even small things such as peeling or deveining shrimp the day before can prevent one from becoming frazzled and hurried.
“Develop a game plan. Write your plan down the week prior to the event, including every single thing you think you’re going to need and do,” he said.
This is where most cooks fall down. Proper planning ensures a successful event. In addition to your food shopping list, write down the smallest detail for what you want to happen during the party. Where will guests park, sit or stand? What type of music will you play? Who will be responsible for the music? Who will be responsible for keeping the room clean during the party? Will someone pour the drinks or will guests pour their own? Watch out for guests who may be “overserved.” You don’t want anyone driving under the influence.
Will the food be served buffet-style or by a server who prepares guests’ plates? Consider having butlers serve the hor d’oeuvres to cut down on food costs.
Will you prepare your own hor d’oeuvres or purchase prepackaged items from a warehouse store?
“Don’t go too elaborate making new dishes. Make it simple, make it fresh, organic, and make it presentable,” Jones advised.
Perhaps you’ll hire a caterer instead of going through the stress of preparing the food yourself. “Don’t hire a caterer you’ve never used before or who doesn’t come personally recommended,” Jones said. If possible, schedule a food tasting or visit a party to see the caterer in action.
And make sure the caterer has the proper facility for safe food preparation. “You want to make sure the hot food arrives hot and the cold food arrives cold,” he said with a laugh. “You would be surprised that some so-called caterers mix food in the back of a van or even the trunk of a car.” (Gasp!)
Here’s a recipe from Jones that can be prepped the night before.
Chef Jesse’s Pecan-Crusted Rack of Pork
Great for Thanksgiving or Christmas
1 rack of pork, cleaned and Frenched
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tbsp fresh minced thyme
1 tbsp fresh mined rosemary
1 tbsp coarse black pepper
1 tbsp kosher salt
3 tbsp creole mustard
3/4 cup panko bread
3/4 cup toasted pecans (toast pecans in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until brown toasty)
In a medium bowl, mix oil, garlic, thyme, rosemary and black pepper. Rub all over the pork and marinate overnight.
Season pork with kosher salt. In a hot skillet, sear the pork on both sides for 4 minutes, until golden brown. Place in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes, for medium, or 40 minutes for well done. Remove from oven and let rest.
Brush pork with creole mustard, combine crumbs and pecans in a bowl, and dredge the pork to cover. Return to the oven just to toast for 5 minutes. Serve hot with a side of cranberry sauce.