Sous me: Jackie Woods of Umami Moto
Jackie Woods was born and raised in Wisconsin. Although he grew up cooking with his mom in the kitchen, it wasn't something for which he ever imagined he'd develop a passion. In fact, he finished almost three years at UW-Milwaukee studying human resources before he decided that it wasn't a profession that he would find particularly fulfilling.
"I was watching the old Japanese iron chefs," Woods recalls, "And I thought there would be a lot to learn and I wouldn't get bored, so I tried it."
Woods, who'd never set food in a professional kitchen before attending culinary school, attended MATC for culinary arts, after which he started off as a line cook at Water Street Brewery where he worked his way up to a managerial position. From there, he moved up the food chain fairly quickly. He worked as a line cook at Bacchus, and started staging at Tru in Chicago, where he met Chef Justin Carlisle for the first time.
He started at Umami Moto working under then-chef Dominic Zumpano, who later moved on to run Ryan Braun's Graffito. He continued to work at Umami Moto, even after Chef Justin Carlisle took over the post in 2011.
For a guy who never envisioned himself as a professional cook, Woods has the drive that really sets culinary professionals apart. He is the type of chef who is constantly looking for new things to absorb, to learn. His mind is inquisitive, and his techniques growing more sharp by the day. So, I was excited to sit down with him and find out more about how he got where he is – and where he sees himself in the next five or ten years.
OnMilwaukee.com: What made you choose food as your career?
Jackie Woods: Everything else seemed less interesting to me. I have a pretty short attention span and need a lot going on in order to keep myself occupied.
When I started culinary school, they gave me a huge book. It was a lot I didn't know, and it seemed interesting to me. And then I realized there were a million huge books like it. I knew it would keep my interest.
OMC: What do you wish you had known when you took your first sous chef position?
JW: Paperwork, I don't really like that. Inventories. Sitting around counting things. Waste logs and profit and loss reports … those are the ones that kill me. It's an awful lot like human resources.
OMC: From your point of view, what's the most important role a sous chef plays?
JW: Making Justin's life easy. That's my job. So he can keep working toward what's next. I deal with the present; he deals with the future.
Justin is a bit quieter, but more stern, so I have to be more aggressive. I need to balance the room. Sous are the hammers in the kitchen.
OMC: What's the most challenging part of your job?
JW: Cooking less. I really miss being in there. In that way, being a sous chef is kind of painful. When I took the position, I didn't anticipate being less hands on. There's less cooking, more overseeing, fixing problems. Less of the adrenaline rush.
OMC: What's the best part?
JW: Doing new things. Working on new techniques. Developing my skill set. Like yesterday we did the torchon from the French Laundry. Justin gave me tips, but then let me run with it. It's warming up right now, but it looked like the book, so I'm pretty sure it turned out (Woods smiles).
It's poached, but not tammied [strained through a woolen cloth]. So, you have to take out the veins. You have to know the anatomy of the liver a lot better.
OMC: What have you learned most about yourself while working in the kitchen?
JW: I'm a lot better when there's a lot going on. You're in school just sitting there, and you trail off. It tends to hurt your grades. But, keeping myself occupied in the kitchen is a great way to deal with my need for activity.
I will admit, I need to work on my patience. You have to believe in the "you gotta be good before you can be great" concept.
OMC: Of the chefs you've worked for, from whom did you learn the most? Why?
JW: There are pieces from everyone. In the beginning there was Aaron Bickham and Matt Haase. They both taught me that it's not OK to suck. You can't just not try. They put up a standard for me to achieve.
Justin Carlisle is pushing me towards more … toward the refinement of things.
OMC: How would you describe your cooking style or philosophy about food?
JW: It's still a bit early for me to have a full blown philosophy; but, it's developing. Cooking with the best product is the most important. Execution, technique. Without those three things, you just don't have a good foundation.
I like melding things that are rough – like cooking with fire, the old school savagery of it – combined with the fine points, like picking things up with tweezers, and putting flowers on a dish. I love foods where you can taste the old school, but can't necessarily see it.
I also like fish, seeing as much fish product as I can ... and wild foods – ramps, clover, those types of things.
And anytime I can get a fire going it makes me happy.
OMC: Fire, huh? So, are you the grill guy at home?
JW: Yeah, I have a big fire pit at home, an outdoor barbeque.
OMC: What's the one thing you wish people knew about sous chefs?
JW: I don't think for the general public there needs to be anything.
But, cooks need to remember that we, too, used to be cooks, and we still are. That's how we formulate the way we want things to be done. When people don't do things the way I see fit, my fuse is short. It's short because I see myself in that position, as a cook, and I have high expectations.
Pulling people up is the object.
OMC: So, do you like the teaching?
JW: I try to do as much as I can to teach. My frustration gets in the way sometimes. But, I think I'm better than I was. From time to time a clipboard gets thrown … but nothing too bad (Woods smiles).
OMC: Speaking of teaching, I hear you've been doing quite a bit of staging in Chicago, learning from some of the best there. Where are you working? And what are you learning?
JW: I've been staging at Tru, Next, RIA. I'm seeing the different levels of cooks. The different standard. The culture is different. I feel like in Chicago they hold themselves in higher esteem than some people here in Milwaukee. I think as better cooks come, and as the expectation raises, Milwaukee might get there.
I bring back as much as I can here. I try to pull in things here that are applicable. You're not going to be able to like poach sweet potatoes on a fire on a table. But, I get to see it and play off of it and see what applies here.
OMC: Where do you envision yourself five, 10 years from now?
JW: In five years, I'll be done working for anyone. That's my goal. I think I'll be where I want to be, skill set wise. In 10, I'm hoping to have had my own place for 4-5 years.
OMC: If you could call the shots on the menu, what would you cook?
JW: It's hard to give you a hard-lined answer. But, a lot of hearth foods. Fish. If I open a restaurant in Wisconsin, I want it to be a Wisconsin restaurant.
Right now I really respect the work of Joshua Skenes. I find what he's doing to be the most interesting to me right now. He cooks a lot with embers and ash. He takes white hot logs and sears fish on them. He's got a forager who picks things for him.
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