Interview: Top Chef's CJ Loves Pork and Gjelina, Dislikes Tequila and Robin
Top Chef: Season Three alum Chris "CJ" Jacobson helped reopen Santa Monica's casual gastropub The Yard last week as new executive chef. CJ's first mission was to flip the menu's script, upgrading the happy hour favorite from a place to score sliders at an afternoon discount to a more serious food destination that retains its sense of fun. We spent a few minutes talking with the 6'8" chef about the food he prepares and likes to eat, and also got him to dish on his predictions for this season's Top Chef winner and that "yoga broad" he can't stand. Without further ado, meet CJ.
Hi CJ, so what brought you to the position at The Yard? Were you a regular?
I was never a customer at the Yard, but I used to live next to Jeff, one of the owners. I initially was going to be on board on a mostly consulting basis as I had plans to open a restaurant in Orange County. Thank God that didn't happen as I don't think I could really survive down there. Although I do like TGI Fridays' mozzarella sticks.
What are you most excited for people to taste from your new menu?
I am proud of the entire menu. And I am not afraid to use the pig. Just last night we had a buyout with a baseball thing and we made bacon Cracker Jacks. We also make a smoked pork belly brittle with chili for the top of our pork belly dish.
I'm proud of our fish tacos which were really made on a whim. They were on the menu before I got there and I was like, 'I'm at a place with fish tacos on the menu!' But I made them my own and am happy with them. They are our best seller.
Where do your recipes come from? Family recipes? A bottle of tequila?
Tequila and I aren't on speaking terms. I am inspired all the time, I guess. I don't ever really stop thinking about food or possibilities. Even right now I am infusing milk with smoked Applewood for a possible bread pudding. It's not that awesome, but I know now.
I am inspired by the seasons. When I'm at the farmers market, it's like an information overload; it's not until I'm back in my kitchen, two blocks away, that I can focus. It's one of my favorite times: alone at 10 a.m. with all my produce.
How do you think the perception of The Yard will change with you behind the stoves?
I hope they will think the food is more serious and the days of Thai-influenced quesadillas are over. We are working hard to tighten everything up. It's not like we closed and got everything set. We have stayed in business and changed things while doing so. I suppose that is really the heart of it, it's a humble place. Sean and Jeff didn't open with a million dollar budget. We are honing things every day and everyone has a direct hand in our success. I love who I work with.
With only two weeks to go in this season of Top Chef, do you have any predictions on a winner?
I think it will be Kevin or Bryan. Mike (Voltaggio) seems like he may get too frustrated, but what do I know really? They are all bomb-ass cooks, except for maybe that yoga broad. She drives me bonkers.
We know that the increased profile of being on TV can help a new restaurant, but is there anything that has hurt your career stemming from the show?
Not really. If anything, I think early-on I was worried about being that "cook on TV douche," now I really don't care. I am proud of what I did on the show. I held to myself, all you can really do. I didn't yell at anyone or end up in Jacuzzi scene..sadly.
There are currently four Top Chef alums opening restaurants in L.A. Do you ever hang out with other cheftestants?
I hang out with a bunch of them. It's usually when we do appearances and demos and the like. I still talk to Casey, Dale, Malarkey, and Ilan. I see Fabio here and there. I even hang with Stephan here and there for limited spurts. It was a great and surreal experience, which creates a unique bond with these folks.
You're a Venice resident. What are some of your favorite places to eat at?
Gjelina, of course. Travis (Lett) is an amazingly thoughtful cook with straight foreward food. Sometimes I feel like a jackass with my food after seeing his. 'Restraint CJ, Jesus!' Piccolo is the best Italian on the Westside. I like the Mexi food truck on Rose (La Isla Bonita). Joe's is great. I used to work at Axe, but I don't go there anymore.
The Yard. 119 Broadway, Santa Monica. 310-395-6037