“It opened up a million doors,” says Chef CJ, Chris Jacobsen, about his appearance on Top Chef Season 3. “I get
noticed every day.” Currently executive chef at The Yard, a gastro-pub in Santa Monica, Chef CJ is enjoying life as a regular chef, behind the burners, free from judges and competitors, every night. His menus contain popular bar food seen everywhere–sliders, fish tacos, pulled pork sandwiches–but also a changing array of interesting choices–braised crispy beef cheek with celery root corn puree, spicy chili crusted shrimp or a chocolate porter cake with dark chocolate pudding. In the public’s eye Chef CJ is a winning top chef.
The 6’8”, former volleyball player, graduated from Pepperdine College and played professionally around Europe before becoming interested in food. “I tried food all over and saw how much more intimate they are with local farmers and their cuisine. I ate in some kitchens and saw them prepare stuff.”
He got cut when he tried out for the Olympic team and moved to the kitchen. He went to culinary school, worked in several restaurants including Axe, Campanile and Wolfgang Puck Catering. CJ later did his own catering and some personal cheffing for columnist/blogger Arianne Huffington and others. “I liked it fine. The money is good and the hours are shorter,” he said about working as a private chef.
To appear on Top Chef, the popular Bravo cable show in which chefs compete for the title, he went to an open calling. “You go through an interview process and they check your references.” No actual cooking is required to get on the show. Season 3 took place primarily in Miami and Chef CJ made it to episode 12 before being eliminated.
The rushed pace of cooking on the show was not helped by the cameras. “They are a pain, in the way, although they try not to be,” CJ said. Waiting for the judges to decide takes much longer than viewers might imagine–anywhere from 5 to 7 hours. “They want us on pins and needles and slightly drunk. It’s 85° in there. That’s why the contestants look peaked.”
The narratives, scattered in between cooking shots, allow contestants to share their thoughts, fears, explain their food and riff on competitors. “They are filmed after the fact. They wake you up to do them. Unless you’re focused you can’t get through it. A couple of times I looked pretty bad,” CJ remembered.
On episode 7 CJ won the elimination challenge with partner Tre Wilcox. The two also scored a bonus trip with a cooking class to Italy sponsored by Bertolli. Their challenge was to create a pre-packaged frozen dinner. They made black truffle and Parmesan linguini, kale, tomato confit and grilled chicken. “I went last winter, it was great. I didn’t take the class, I just cruised around with my girlfriend,” he said.
The chef respects all his peers from the show. “They’re all very professional and everyone has a different skill set. You learn so much,” he said. From Casey Thompson, fan favorite and runner-up, he learned to make shitake bacon. “You lightly fry shitakes, dry and salt them. They taste like bacon.”
About winning chef Hung Huynh, “He’s not the best person but he went through a learning experience. You don’t always believe everything until you see it yourself. It changes you,” Chef CJ commented.
He’s been asked to appear again a number of times for Top Chef specials such as the holiday episode and to assist Chef Michael Chiarello on Top Chef Masters.
He appears anytime on Videojug.com doing cooking demos of American comfort favorites such as macaroni salad, tuna casserole and beef stew. His teaching style makes cooking approachably easy even for a novice. Practiced cooks will appreciate the gourmet twists he gives to the recipes such as homemade garlic aioli for egg salad or chopped parsley with lemon, olive oil and salt to top his beef stew.
His goal at The Yard is to keep the menu seasonal and moving toward sustainable. He shops weekly at the farmer’s market and sources local seafood. His cooking imagination is firing all the time. Tuesdays feature the Big Cheese. Dishes such as Fried Cheese Curds–bacon cream fraiche & apple tomatillo sauce and Devils within Earshot–fried pig ear, bacon, bleu cheese and dates. A recent star dessert was caramelized popcorn bread pudding.
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