ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and failures, and what they’ve learned from both.
ARCHIVAL HOST: [APPLAUSE] It just feels electric in here, look at you all! I see you all! I see you all! It feels electric to be in a room full of this many talented and passionate people...
ALEX BLUMBERG: In 2018, at a ceremony in Chicago, the James Beard Awards were being held. They’re sort of like the Oscars of the food world. And there was one chef in particular who was cleaning up that night.
His name was Edouardo Jordan. Earlier in the evening he’d won one award, as best chef in the American northwest. And as the evening closed, he had another one in his sights. His second restaurant JuneBaby, which he’d just opened a year earlier, was up for one of the most anticipated awards of the evening: best new restaurant.
ARCHIVAL PRESENTER: And the Beard award goes to, whoo, JuneBaby!
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR 1 : Edouardo back up for round two tonight.
ARCHIVAL ANCHOR 2: Yeah, not a bad night for him, right? Now he’s accepting the second james beard award of the night.
ARCHIVAL EDOUARDO: I had to do this, sorry… [laughs] so you know, it’s such a great honor to be standing up here to accept the James Beard award for best new restaurant, um...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Edouardo was the first african-american chef to win that honor in the 28-year history of the James Beard awards. On stage, he thanked the people who helped him get there, his staff, his investors, and of course his family. He ended with some words to his young son.
ARCHIVAL EDOUARDO: And this award is for you, and I want you to dream big my little star. We’re making history tonight, and daddy wants you to know that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. And the future is yours, but don’t forget the past. Thank you guys.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That advice to his son, about remembering the past, that was advice that Edouardo Jordan had to learn himself, during his long, circuitous path to that stage. Edouardo Jordan is my guest today on the program. And we talked a lot about that path. It was one that took him far away from where he grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, across several continents, through many many kitchens, including one in particular, a crazy mecca of fine dining, where technique is honed and spirits are crushed.
But that kitchen, the mecca, that one came much later. Edouardo started out in a very different kitchen, his mom’s, and he wasn’t there by choice.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: I was a bad kid.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Really?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah. I probably was kicked out of three to four elementary schools.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Three to four?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Three to four.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Who’s counting?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: It gets a little blurry. No one's counting anymore.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Edouardo had trouble paying attention in class, he said he started falling in with a little bit of a bad crowd. And so his mom started setting boundaries for him at home.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: My mom, you know, She was like, "Look, if you want to go outside and play, you're gonna have to do this and this before you even think about going outside and play." And it was like, clean your room or go cook with me. And I slowly started cooking with my mom, because I was like, "Well, I kind of enjoy cooking more than actually cleaning my room." And that was my ticket to get outside. And so ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Was cooking with your mom.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: It was cooking with my mom. Correct.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So describe how that work -- like, this was every day? You would -- you would ...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: No, it wasn't -- it wasn't -- no, no it wasn't every day. It was more or less -- it was more or less like my mom is cooking and she's like, "Come help me." And I was -- and if said no, it was like, "Well, don't think about going outside today." You know, it was kind of when she needed help or, "Hey, can you boil the eggs for me and peel them?" Um, You know, I was no master chef, but it was definitely a introduction to food . And that excitement led me to cooking more with my grandmother, who was the big Southern cook in the family.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And as the big southern cook in the family, she had one meal in particular that she was responsible for: Sunday supper. The whole family would go to church, and then afterwards, everyone would get together at Edouardo’s grandmother’s house. Most weekends, Edouardo and his cousins would go over to her place early, to help prepare.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: My grandmother, you know, she used to wake up at the crack of dawn to start breakfast and also start the Sunday supper. And there was mornings that I would just wake up and ask her what she's doing, and she would never tell me much. Just kind of shooing me out of the kitchen and go turn some cartoons on or something. But the -- the TV was near the kitchen, so I would sit and watch TV while I’m watching her work in the kitchen. And so that slowly started me, sticking my head more into the kitchen and asking more questions to the point that she got irritated enough that she gave me -- started giving me tasks to do. And then when she realized that she needed more help, especially on, like, our big, big dinners like Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinners, she'll call me and my other cousin into the kitchen. And we're toasting bread for the stuffing and, you know, we're -- we're chopping collard greens, we're just doing, like, these little, you know, little tasks to kind of help grandmother get through her endless list of food that she needs to get through.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So she was the head chef and you are, like, her ...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: The little sous chef.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Little sous chef.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: The little sous chef.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And what did that feel like for you?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Just interesting. Things -- certain things interest me. Tearing up things interest me, and building things interests me. And food was building something. You started with one little ingredient, and it turned into an entire dish, you know? Um, and so that was something that interest me. How could she make these leafy vegetables taste so good at the end? What did she put in there? What was she doing? she never did it with a recipe. She, you know, she did it off her hip, and -- and what she had in the kitchen. And she made it always taste good. So I was like, "Well, my mom doesn't technically cook like this. So what is she doing?" So I'm taking things from grandmother, I'm bringing it back to my kitchen with my mom.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And so you're doing this as a 12-year-old, 13-year-old, through -- through teenager years?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: All the way to college.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But college-bound Edouardo Jordan had dreams that had nothing to do with cooking. He wanted to be a track-and-field athlete like his idol, Carl Lewis. And he even ran track in college. But like a lot of high school athletes, that experience only taught him, he didn’t have what it takes to succeed at the next level. And so he settled for a career that would at least keep him close to sports. He double majored in business administration and sports management, and after graduation, he landed a big-deal internship, working for his hometown major league baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays.
He was doing well. He was on a path. It seems possible that his future as a chef may never have come to be, had it not been for this one fact about his internship -- it was so boring.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: One of the jobs that I had as an intern was counting banner time. So when you're looking at the game from home and you looking at home plate, there's a banner that's right behind home plate. There's also one on first base and third base. And these are sponsors that, you know, pay good money to have their ad, at that inning, displayed. So one of my tasks was to sit there and count the time that banners were displayed at various innings throughout the entire game. There were some games that went to 13 innings. There were some innings that were, like, 45 minutes. these games became long. And all I'm doing is watching banner time. And that gave...
ALEX BLUMBERG: You're not even watching the game. You're just watching literally the shot behind home plate.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Exactly. Well, all three bases you're watching them, and making sure that, you know, that everything's timed.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Like, to make sure, like, Joe's Downtown Dodge, like, their banner is being displayed.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Accounted for.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Wow!
EDOUARDO JORDAN: So that was -- that was one of the -- the mundane tasks that I had that gave me a lot of time to think about my life and my career, [laughs] what I actually want to do.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And sitting there, with all that time, he reflected on the moments from college, when he felt happiest and most fulfilled. Edouardo had been a social person in college. He’d thrown a lot of parties. And like a lot of college kids, he had music and booze at these parties. But unlike a lot of college kids, he also catered them himself. Spent the entire day making food for his guests. Like this one party he threw for his birthday one year.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: I decided for my 21st birthday, I'm gonna have the biggest shebang -- [laughs] So, hired a DJ, start buying up tons of food. So there's probably like 10 to 12 different dishes sitting on my countertop. Um...
ALEX BLUMBERG: What kinds of -- what kinds of food did you have? What did you make?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: It was kind of Southern fare. I remember we were having collard greens. We had, like, baked chicken wings, some kind of I think corn casserole or something of that nature.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Stuff that you learned from ...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: From grandma, you know. And there were nearly 200 people in my apartment, down the stairwell, all in the courtyard . I thought, like, the balcony of my apartment was just gonna fall down because there was so many people partying out there. Whoever was in the house they got enough food, and it was amazing. And you know, people complimented me on the food, beyond the party. And I was complimenting myself for the party and not even the food. But you know it's those compliments that you get unknowingly about something that I thought was second to the party, that kind of inspired me, too. You know, there's like, you know, this was amazing.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And you're like, "But wait, what about the DJ?”
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Exactly!
ALEX BLUMBERG: That was the special thing. I spent $50 bucks on him!
EDOUARDO JORDAN: All the beautiful people that were there.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] And all they want to talk about is your casserole.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Well it's, like, I think it's one of those things that I think when -- when you have a gift at something, what it means is that it's easier for you than it is for other people.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Correct. Yeah, totally. You know, I knew I loved cooking. I knew that I can taste things. I knew that, like, I like reading cookbooks, and try different things at home. But I didn't know how other people would take to my food, because I didn't cook for that many people in my life. I cooked for my mom, my grandmother, you know, some of my best friends. But when you have, you know, potentially 150 people in your apartment, and they're dabbling through your food. And -- and -- that's when you realize, like, oh, you've got something here.
ALEX BLUMBERG: In other words, it was dawning on Edouardo, that this thing he’d taken for granted his whole life, cooking, maybe that was the thing he should be focusing on. So after his internship was over, he ditched sports, got a job at Staples to pay the bills, started figuring out his next move. This being the early 2000’s, one of the first things he did was start a blog. A blog where he reviewed restaurants in the Tampa - St. Petersburg area. He called the site Tamburg. Many nights a week, he’d dine out, come back, write his review. And be struck over and over by the feeling that the food he made himself tasted better than the food he was eating in these restaurants he was reviewing.
And while this is happening, remember, he’s blogging from home, he has the tv on a lot during the day. And there was this one advertisement that keeps coming on over and over again.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Commercials for Le Cordon Bleu are continually popping up on my TV, and, it pretty much came on every 30 minutes. "Le Cordon Bleu. If you want to become a great chef, join Le Cordon Bleu." You know,
ALEX BLUMBERG: And what is Le Cordon Bleu?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Le Cordon Bleu is a nationally-known cooking school, similar to, like, the French Culinary Institute.
ALEX BLUMBERG: so you applied to the Le Cordon Bleu.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And you got in, I'm assuming?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: And I got in. And, culinary school is very expensive um, you know I took some major loans out to -- to make that happen. So it's just like building debt on debt to actually go into something that I wasn't really sure about. you know? Like, how did I graduate from the University of Florida with dual degrees, and now I'm in culinary school with, you know, forty to fifty thousand dollars worth of debt. Um ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: 'Cause the graduating from culinary school, it's not like you -- it's an immediate path to riches.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Correct.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You're going to work in kitchens.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: It's an immediate path to debt.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What do you make as a beginning -- even if you're in a ...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: $7 an hour back in the day then.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So you're looking at $7 an hour working at, like, even if you get a pretty good job at a decent, like, hotel-restaurant or something like that. It's not...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah. I think -- I think hotels may have been paying about, like, $10 or $11 at that time. And so I knew that if I was gonna sacrifice as much as I was, and getting to this much debt, that I was really gonna take this serious. I was gonna go work for the best when I'm done with culinary school, a lot of students were coming out of culinary school thinking, like, they're a chef already. You graduated, now you're a chef. And we had no clue what a chef really was. We only knew our chef instructors who, you know, were at that point in time either tired or burnt out in the industry. So we knew, like, a small aspect of what they went through, but we didn't know the reality of, like, what makes a great chef, what makes a great restaurant.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You have the wherewithal to realize, like okay, we're learning the basics here but, like, we're not learning from the best.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Correct.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah, I knew that there was more to the world and the food world that wasn't truly being exposed to me. Um, I was working in a few restaurants in Orlando, and Orlando's a tourist trap. As we know Disney World is there, Universal Studios is there. So the restaurant world there, it's kind of turn-and-burn, deep-fryer kind of food. And that's what I was cooking in as a culinary student. I'm like, there has to be more to this. I did not get myself into culinary school to become the best fry cook.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: There had to be something more to this. And I knew that I needed to find the who's who and what's what, and what's going on in this industry. And that took me down a whole rabbit hole of, like, you know, searching on who's the best in the world and who's creating the most exciting cuisine. And, that was the start, the second stage to my culinary career.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Edouardo basically embarked on his own self-taught master classes that he conducted while he was taking his basic cordon bleu course schedule. He spent his free time in the library reading cookbook after cookbook, getting to know the work of celebrated chefs. And eventually, he came across a book that, to him, stood apart from the rest.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: The book that struck me the most was the French Laundry. And that was chef Thomas Keller.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And tell me about the French Laundry. What is -- just, you know, for people who may not know. What is the French Laundry?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Well, one it's still one of the greatest restaurants in the world. And at that point in time of me opening that cookbook -- his first cookbook, Thomas Keller, that restaurant was voted the best restaurant in the world. And we're not talking about just California or the United States, we're talking about the entire world.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: He's a American chef cooking French cuisine. Um, moved out to California after kind of struggling in the restaurant world in New York, and ended up landing in Yountville who no one has ever heard of before then, besides Napa Valley and the wine world. But no one really cared about Yountville. And, you know, when I opened up that book, it was just like that's when the light clicked. That's when the light actually came on, and I realized that there was so much more to the food world that I wasn't seeing, andI needed to be a part of it, and I needed to get out of my circle in Florida to experience something more.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What was it about the book? What did you see in that book that ...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: It was just -- it was -- it was takes on classic things that we were learning in culinary school, and -- and put in reality for me. Classic sauces that I finally get to see done elegantly, done in a lighter fare in a sense. French cuisine is very heavy, if you go back from a traditional standpoint. A lot of butter. Making sauces of roux. Things that are, like, thick and rich. And then there was a --
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: there was a swing to kind of make French cuisine a lighter -- um, lighter fare. Nouvelle cuisine. And just figuring out how to make French cuisine just feel healthier. Um, and he had a perfect -- Chef Keller had the perfect balance of classic techniques, classic dishes done on this nouvelle kind of thought process, but also kind of, um, he had fun with his food. You know, he had a cornet dish, which is salmon tartare, in this little twill that looked like a ice cream cone. And I thought it was like, "Wow, that's beautiful. It's amazing." And it's, like, nostalgic that you can think about ice cream, but actually it's fish with creme freche in there. And it's like, "What is this?" And then like, roulades and terrines, and -- and, you know, various techniques that just, like, we talked about but I never saw. And just to see the picture, and just, like, see how clean it was. And how precise his recipes were. It's just like, it was mind-blowing. It's just like, I want to be a part of this. Like, this is how you become a great chef.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Opening that cookbook was like opening a travel guide to a world he wanted to get to. But the French Laundry, it’s not the kind of place you can just show up and get a job. How Edouardo Jordan went from manning a deep fryer in Orlando to the kitchen of one of the world’s best restaurants? That’s coming up, after the break.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with chef Edouardo Jordan.
When we left off, Edouardo had just discovered the French Laundry cookbook. The thing that, to him, represented everything he wanted to learn and be as a chef.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: So I ended up graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, and I was applying to the French Laundry and never heard anything back from them. And the only way you can apply was either e-mail or a letter. And I did both. Um, And so I realized that they weren't going to answer. And one of the requirements for Le Cordon Bleu is that you have to get a internship or apprenticeship before you technically graduate. So I ended up getting a job at a local place in Tampa called Mise en Place But, you know, I mentioned to Ferrell, who was the sous chef at that point in time, the second in command of the restaurant, I was like, "Look man, I -- I'm thankful for having a job here, but I really want to go work at the French Laundry." And he's like, "Boy, who are you?" You know, who's this kid coming right out of culinary school saying that he wants to work at the French Laundry? And this is Tampa, Florida, you have no clue what it takes to get to the French Laundry. And he's -- he's a -- he was a smart, talented chef, too. So he knew what French Laundry meant. And, you know, just a few weeks in, he realized, like, I was serious and I was taking what I was doing extremely serious. And he looked at me and he said something to the nature as like, "Look, I haven't seen anyone as talented as you and work as hard as you. So follow your dreams." And that -- that made me realize, like, I need to continue applying for the French Laundry. And so I continued sending emails and -- and letters out to the point that I got pissed, because I wasn't getting an answer. And I think we had, like, a somewhat of a winter break or something of that nature, and I decided to get on the airplane and take a trip to San Francisco, which meant that I was in close vicinity to Yountville. So I rented a car and I drove up to Yountville and went through the courtyards, and stood there and looked with the, the twinkle eyes of, like, "Can someone please help me? Help me. I need help. I have questions."
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughter]
EDOUARDO JORDAN:'Til someone finally came out. It was a front-of-the-house person. I was like, "Yeah, I'm interested in working here." And they ended up grabbing the sous chef. Very good guy. His name is Devon Nell. Thank you Devon Nell for entertaining me at that point in time in my life. But Devon was very welcoming. Um...
ALEX BLUMBERG: And what were you -- what were you saying? What did you do? Like, Devon comes out. What -- what are the words you say to him?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Well, I knew that I had to, like, knock it out of the park, and not stutter and be, you know, upfront and exact with him. And I was like, "Yeah, I just graduated culinary school. I work in a place called Mise en Place in Tampa." And he said, "Mise en Place?" And I was like, "Yeah, Mise en Place." Because mise en place is a term that we use in the kitchen. You know, keeping your things in order, and having everything ready. And he's like, "Look, you know, if you're really serious about coming away from Tampa to come work here, here's my email. Email me your resume." So I had a personal connect then to at least drop my email to the right person. And I emailed him my resume when I got back home. And I think within two weeks later he responds back. He's like, "If you're serious about coming out, we have an opening in March. And we'd love to have you come out."
ALEX BLUMBERG: As what?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: As a -- I was an intern,
ALEX BLUMBERG: Paid intern?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: It was a six month — No, no. An unpaid internship. But I knew that there was more to this decision of going to work at the best restaurant in the world, even if it meant working for free.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So -- so you get to the French Laundry. What's -- talk about the first day you show up. What's it like there?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Ha. The first day I arrive at the French Laundry I remember so vividly. I had on my University of Florida sweatshirt. I think I had blue jeans on, tennis shoes. And this wasn't a work day, this was actually just me showing up figuring out what's the next stage and what's the next step that I do. And the first person I run into is Chef Thomas Keller. And I mean, I think I wet my pants because I just wasn't expecting him to be the first person that I met. And he wasn't expecting me. He had no clue who I was either. But Chef Keller, he -- he greets everyone by saying Hello Chef. And so, you know, it was the first time someone called me chef even though, you know, I was a nobody. And he's like, "Good Morning, Chef. How can I help you?" And that humbled me really fast. I realized that, you know, I need to be laser-focused, because you never know who's gonna be behind you on your side or next to you, whatever the case is. And that was the occasion all the time, you know? You never knew when Chef Keller was going to pop in on you. You know, there was times that I was working in the back kitchen and he's like staring over my back and I didn't realize it. And, you know, hopefully you're -- you're doing it right, because, you know, if not you're getting scolded, because, he knows that that's not the right way. And you should know that's not the right way to do it. It was a nerve-wracking experience. Like I said, I never experienced a kitchen of that level before. You know, not many people ever, chefs -- don't get to experience kitchens of that level and that caliber. It's intense, you know? It's fiery.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What is -- what is the difference, though? Like -- like, because a lot of the times, like, you're, you know, dicing an onion is dicing an onion, right? Or not.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Well that's an open-ended [laughs] question. You know, long story short, you know, a cut onion is a cut onion. But if you're smashing the onion until it turns to water, that's not a cut onion anymore. You denatured the structure of that onion, and so yes it's going to start tasting different when you start applying heat or if you don't apply heat. It's gonna be different tones that are enhanced or hindered by the way you actually cut it. So it does matter. It also matters from a presentation standpoint. You know, if you're looking for the perfect dice because it's gonna be presented on the plate then it needs to be a perfect dice, to look beautiful.
ALEX BLUMBERG: and that's the kind of attention to detail ...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: That's the attention to detail,
ALEX BLUMBERG: You can dice an onion wrong.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah, what we call, like, two cups of small dice which is a brunoise, if they weren't perfect, which may have taken you 20 to 30 minutes to cut. You know, that -- that could be a starting-over point where you now wasted 40 minutes of your day, so you're totally behind. So you're always on eggshells. And...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did that happen to you?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Oh, yeah. It happens to everyone.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Tell me -- tell me -- tell me a story of how it happened to you. What happened to you?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Oh, man. It's what didn't happen. I mean, you know, in that caliber restaurant, there's -- there's something that's gonna go wrong each and every day. And when you have perfect days, man, it's the most exhilarating thing ever. You feel like a king, and you want to come back and you're ready to run. And then your bubble is burst the next day because, like, you didn't dice it right. But I mean, like, some of the tasks that we had to do that, you know, crushed everyone was the famous eggshell where, you know, there's a egg custard in this shell and it's presented to guests with the potato chip that's cut, and it has a chive kind of set in the center of the potato chip. And it is baked perfectly golden brown, and the chip is crispy. And it sits in the egg custard like a feather. But there are so many stages to get to that custard that is eaten in five seconds from the guest...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: The start is the intern whose job is to actually open up that egg, cut a perfect ring around the egg, tip the top of the egg off, drain that egg. There's a membrane inside of that egg that you actually need to get out, because you definitely don't want a guest digging in to their custard and they're pulling out this membrane that looks like a piece of slime now. So you have to soak the egg in a hot water-vinegar solution for, you know, a set period of time. And that time is to be determined depending on the structure of the egg shell, you know, but these eggs are extremely fragile. And we're talking about, like, you might be doing 90 eggs and you get a 30 percent yield. So you get 30 eggs done out of a case of 90 that you've done. And then the worst is that you get your 30 percent yield at best. They sit overnight. And then when the chefs come in the next day and they're starting to fill the eggs and they start cracking and they're down to 10 eggs, and then you're coming in and you're now, you know, the first person you're confronted by is the chef saying, "What the heck happened? How did you spend two hours yesterday cleaning these eggs and we only have 10?" You know, that's like -- it's a blow in the stomach that just makes you want to turn around and walk out.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That happened to you?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Certain things that -- yes. The answer's yes. I didn't turn around and walk out. That's why I'm still here this day. But there were blows like that that happened all the time, those were the humbling moments that I had as a young chef, um, as a young culinarian, I realized that there was so much to learn, so much to experience, and so much for me to figure out who I am in this industry.
ALEX BLUMBERG: for you personally, like, did you feel like you fit in in the kitchen? was it like -- was it like -- I don't know, like, how -- how many Black people were -- were working in that kitchen, and was that an issue or not?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Well, that's an easy answer. There was two of us. One in pastry, and me the intern. So, one ...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Out of how many people?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Uh, 40-50. 50 people or so. But I mean, that's the reality of the -- of the fine dining world. You know, there's not many people of color in that world. There's not many people can actually sacrifice and afford to walk the walk to be in this industry, at least when I started.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: I mean, you understand the route that I had to take to get there. How many people can put themselves in that much debt to actually, you know, make it to where I am now. And honestly, I can say I'm still paying on my student loan, you know? So you know, that -- that's the kind of sacrifice that one needs to make. And so when you talk about, people coming from similar backgrounds that I came from, there's not many of my friends or people that I know of that could have walked the walk that I walked to get here. So yeah, there's not many of us in the fine dining world. um, And understand, like, Napa Valley didn't have any -- two, maybe one or two people of color, also. So it wasn't like I can go to the movies on my day off and felt like I was comfortable still, even in Napa Valley. To be honest, I had to go to, like, Vallejo to actually, like, see other folks of color. Um.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, it's interesting. I mean, because, like, you -- you were going there in many ways because it was -- it was a completely foreign world, you know? Like, that was the point, you know, in some way. Um. But -- but then you get there and you're like, "Oh, right."
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: "I'm not -- there's nobody like me here."
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah. Well, you know, I didn't -- I didn't technically expect that. But I also had a reality check. I mean, even in culinary school there wasn't -- we were probably three percent people of color there in culinary school.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, wow. Really! Uh huh.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: And out of the -- the 15 that I possibly knew of, I'm the only one that I know that went to fine dining. And I don't recall seeing any of my peers doing anything great. You know, some of them took jobs on oil rigs, some of them were working at nursing homes. Some of them were executive chefs for, like, the school system. You know, even the outcome of going to culinary school wasn't great for the folks of color, at least at my school. So..
ALEX BLUMBERG: What is that about, do you think? Is that, like, Why -- why did -- why were you the only person of color that you knew from -- from your class who went on the route that you did? Is it more about you? Is about the experience?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: I don't know. No. One is about me, because I had a different mindset and a different mission in mind. I think also -- I'm thinking about the students that I went to school with. a lot of them couldn't venture out further than where their families were for financial reasons, too. And then, you know, I think about, from even a deeper standpoint, you know, the fine dining world lends itself to a lot of mental abuse, a lot of physical abuse, in the sense that you're working tons of hours. You're there endless hours. You're thinking about food day in and day out. You're thinking about, you know, the lashings that you got because you didn't have the brunoise right, or -- or you didn't cook enough of something because you didn't know that this many guests were going to come in that night, or you know, something wasn't right. And so you're mentally taking that home every day. And a lot of people where I come from, they don't want to experience that. They experience that in their life already. They went through enough turmoil and issues that why would I want to put myself in a career that's gonna bring that same type of mentality from my boss, you know? So, I think a lot of that goes through a lot of people of color's mind.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. If you're coming from a more privileged background or whatever, and this is sort of like -- you can sort of write this off as, like, this is a toughening experience.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: This is a rite of passage for me.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: But for someone like me normally, they'd be like, "Hell, no. I'm not going through that. Like, why would I do that, you know? I'm not about to get yelled at by some white guy in a white hat telling me that I'm too slow and not smart enough and, you know ..."
ALEX BLUMBERG: That I cracked an egg wrong.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah, exactly.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up after the break. Edouardo Jordan finally achieves his dream of becoming a star in the restaurant world. And then he invites his grandma to join him. Kind of.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Edouardo Jordan.
Edouardo made it through the 6 months of his internship at the French Laundry. And it did what prestigious internships like that are supposed to do, it opened doors for him. The next several years of his life involved rising through the ranks of the food world, and continuing his education. He traveled to Italy to learn the classic art of salami making from a sixth generation Italian salumist. Yes, that’s what they’re called. He got a prestigious job as chef de cuisine, at a high-end restaurant in Seattle, and then in 2015, after almost a decade of preparation, he opened his own restaurant. Called Salare.
The menu is seasonal, eclectic and innovative and draws on all his training -- it can feature anything from homemade pastas, to duck hand pies with sauce chausseur, to ribeye steak with mint and coconut curry. When Salare opened, it was an overnight success. Edouardo was named one of the best new chefs in America by Food and Wine magazine.
The world of promise that first opened to him in the pages of the French Laundry cookbook, it took years, and many miles spent traveling the globe, but Edouardo had seemingly arrived. And then, 2 years later, he opened a completely different kind of restaurant. JuneBaby. One that served food that you would never find in a classic French cookbook. Food that Edouardo Jordan wouldn’t need a cookbook to cook at all.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] So -- I want to talk about JuneBaby now. Like, what -- What was -- what was the impetus for JuneBaby?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Um, it was a business decision. [laughs] What happened was there was a restaurant right down the street from Salare. So all my restaurants are within walking distance, two minutes away. So right down the street was this restaurant that was -- space that was empty. And it continued to be empty. And someone told me like, "Hey, I think that space is empty. Maybe you should check it out." And I was like, "Yeah, I'm not -- I'm not really interested in another restaurant." I mean, mind you -- like, Salare took seven, eight, nine years to put together on paper. And to even think about doing something more meant that I need to, like, put my brain down on paper again and try to figure out what makes sense for me to do. And as I kept thinking about it, I'm like, "Well, I can either open something there or I can let someone else open something there, and I have competition now." And so from a business standpoint, I realized that it's probably gonna be -- it's probably gonna be a better decision that I at least take the chance to open up something there, rather than let someone else come in and be just as good as Salare and give me competition and take away my clientele. But -- I decided that I wanted to do something that, for lack of better words and not to downplay JuneBaby, but something that was easy for me. Something that was natural for me. Because Salare takes a lot of brainwork. It takes, like, introducing new flavors and new spices and seeing if they work, incorporating classic techniques and things of that nature, and kind of twisting up what is supposed to be to something that is new.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Innovating. You have to innovate.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It takes brainwork to innovate.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] So I'm like, "I know I don't have enough brain power or width to, like, to do a second Salare, . And so I was thinking something fast casual. I was like, "Oh, maybe I'll do a smoked meats place. And as it started coming together, something was starting to happen where I started paying attention to the news. I don't pay attention to a lot of the food world. Because I kind of work in my own bubble. And I don't like trends. I don't follow trends.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: And for whatever reason, I kind of was woken up and I was realizing, like, there were so many Southern restaurants popping up in the United States. And what struck me the most was that all of these Southern restaurants were ran by white chefs and chef-owners. And I was just amazed and kind of taken back. I'm like, "Wow! Where did my -- where did my life go in this industry?" Like, there's not many of us. And then the many of us that are there, where are we and what are we doing? And why aren't we -- why aren't we highlighting, being highlighted for the foods that we cooked? It really struck me that a lot of Black chefs and people of color, we strayed away from cooking our own food because it had been talked down upon for many years. And so I realized that I pretty much sadly turned my back on my own food, I didn't truly express myself as a Southern chef with Salare. And the light bulb that was coming on for me, was that I needed to take the time and present Southern food the way that I know Southern food. And how can I present my Southern food from my perspective to the masses, and present it from a chef perspective at the same time.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So I'm looking over the lunch menu of JuneBaby. It's got buttermilk biscuits, cast iron Flint cornbread, pork cracklin, Nashville hot chicken gizzards, um, pork neck bones with braised leeks and fennel. Um...
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah. These are the foods that I cooked. These are the foods that I ate, together with my mom, my grandmother, and also my father. And my father taught me how to cook over live fire. And that's where the name JuneBaby actually comes from, from my father. That's his nickname. Um. So, you know, yeah, I realized that I had an opportunity to present my food, and my food meant so much more. It meant me researching my food more. meaning, where did this ingredient come from? Why did it land here? What's the hardship behind it? What's the blessing behind it? You know? What -- where's the storyline to this ingredient? And this is the stories that my grandmother didn't tell me. And I wasn't sure if she was afraid to talk about chitlins, or cared not to talk about chitlins. Or talk about some of the off-cuts that we had to eat. Like why we eat spoon cornbread and hoecakes, and things of that nature. I didn't know the history of that. I knew that it tasted good, I knew how to cook it, but I actually didn't know a lot of the history of my food. And it became a mission for me when I was establishing the concept for JuneBaby, to understand my roots more. To understand the bloodline of the lot of ingredients that make Southern food. Telling the story of the migration of African and African-American cuisine in America.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What is the story of -- like, um, chitlins or spoon cornbread. Like, what -- what was the thing that you learned, that -- that your grandmother -- that you had not talked to your grandmother about?
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Well, you know, she -- told me about the reason she cooked collard greens or cabbage is because that's what they grew in their yard. They -- they cooked what was available to them. And when they did go to the meat market, the things that they could afford was the off-cuts, because they were, you know -- you had to make the best out of what you can. that's the story that my grandmother told. But the reality about, like, chitlins and a lot of these off-cuts is, during the time of slavery and the time of forcefully bringing people over to the United States to build America, those people that were bringing all of these folks over unwillingly were eating high on the hog, and everyone else was eating low on the hog. Eating chitlins and hearts and ears, while the -- the slave masters were eating the ham, the shoulder, the pork loin, and there was someone cooking that food for both sides of that table. So they had this masked talent and knowledge about food that is always overlooked.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: And it's that talent that was overlooked and has always been overlooked and forgotten about. Like, the slave master didn't care about the -- the black-eyed pea, you know? The black-eyed pea was to nourish their land. But Africans realized, like, this is nourishment, and add it to rice you get a full meal, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, so the plantation owners were planting black-eyed peas just to fix the nitrogen in the soil so they could grow their cotton.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: Yeah. And you know, and things that you -- you know, you eat your black-eyed peas and rice and you got a full meal. You can cook the leaves of black eyed peas and, you know, now you've got another braised greens, you know? Collard greens didn't come over because Africans brought over. Collard greens came over to fix the land for the rice fields, and build structure to the land. And so Africans cooked collard greens because that was available to them, and they cooked it because it was familiar to them in a sense. It looked like and kind of tastes like other greens that we used to cook. So collard greens became a staple in the South because, like, they made the best out of nothing.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
EDOUARDO JORDAN: It's that story that I'm trying to tell with Junebaby. The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, that actually makes up the landscape of America, and american cuisine. This is what, you know, eating in the little house looks like. And not many of us ever had the opportunity to eat in the big house. So it's just a reminder. Like, the food of JuneBaby is history, man, it's rooted -- And I'm excited and proud to present it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Since winning that James Beard award for JuneBaby, Edouardo Jordan has opened a third restaurant. It’s right next door, and it’s called Lucinda Grain Bar. Named after his great-grandmother.
Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick and Rob Szypko. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.
Music and mixing by Bobby Lord.
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