Table Talk with Chef Joho
SW Michigan feels like home to renowned French chef
When he was only a bit taller than a kitchen table, Chef J. Joho was peeling vegetables in his little uniform in his aunt’s restaurant kitchen in Alsace, France. By age 13, he apprenticed for Paul Haeberlin of L’Auberge de l’Ill, going on to study cheese, wine and all the stages of the traditional French kitchen and becoming a sous-chef at the tender age of 23 at a Michelin three-star restaurant.
Having worked in kitchens in Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland before coming to Chicago in 1984, today he is best known for his personal, Alsace-inflected French cuisine at Everest, an exquisitely appointed restaurant perched on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Deemed one of the best French restaurants in North America, Everest is consistently rated four stars by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Magazine.
When not flying between his fleet of Chicago ventures and his restaurants in Las Vegas and Boston, Chef Joho likes to escape to a beautiful countryside hideaway right here in Michiana, where he’s put down deep roots in Southwest Michigan, getting to know local farmers, patronizing local businesses, entertaining his closest friends and even donating a meal for 10 to a local charity auction.
Edible Michiana: Why Michigan?
Chef Joho: It reminds me of Alsace: hilly, with vineyards, farmland, orchards and lots of produce. Thirty years ago I came to Chicago and visited the regional farms. I love Wisconsin, too, but I was attracted to the vineyards of Michigan—I feel it’s much closer to Alsace.
It’s not so far from Chicago, too, but mostly I love it because of the countryside. It’s relaxing—my mode changes right away from city to countryside. I have a work mode and a relaxing mode, and when I’m here, I’m relaxing!
EM: What was your sense of local food growing up?
CJ: Local food is really important. You eat what you have in season—that’s the most important thing. That’s what nature is. Why do you want to eat a tomato in January? You want to eat the first corn, the first peas, the first tomatoes—when they’re fresh. When you put fruit direct from a tree into your mouth it’s the most fantastic thing. Everyone should have this experience of eating directly from the tree.
EM: What are your favorite local products?
CJ: What is tasty at the moment! Like fresh-from-the farm asparagus, ripe fruit from the tree, blueberries from the bush. That’s what I enjoy. I like Bit of Swiss, a very good bakery with very good baguettes, like Paris. There are good local ice cream shops, good local meats and cheeses too. You have a wonderful biodynamic farm, Blue Star Produce, that grows wonderful heirloom varieties. Local in New Buffalo is a wonderful shop. Middlebrook Farm has 100 percent grass-fed beef. Falatic’s Meat Market and Drier’s Meat Market are great.
I know Herb at Tree-Mendus Fruit. He has a passion for fruit. He just knows so much. He grows the Quince pear, something I thought I’d never find. I’m always excited whenever I find an old variety of fruit or vegetable. For example, the Mirabelle plum. I had never seen these in this country, and I was so excited to see it here in Michigan. My friend Christine Ferber of Alsace, the world’s best jam maker [of La Maison Ferber in Niedermorschwihr, France] has visited me multiple times here in Michigan. She said she was in heaven. She made me so much jam! (Editor’s note: For more about Tree-Mendus and heirloom fruit in SW Michigan, see page 36 of the Fall issue.)
You have so much here—local crafts, wine, food—you have so much happening now. Three new wineries are opening up around the corner. More and more farmers are growing hops for local beers—which reminds me of what I saw around me in Alsace growing up. There has been such a change in the past 20 years. Lots of people have come up with serious food. The wineries have improved so much. Journeyman makes wonderful alcohol ... there are so many places. The little local market does beautiful flowers ... here, the culture is for the people. There are people here who really appreciate what local is.
EM: Do you drink local wine?
CJ: Absolutely! You have lots of different styles. So long as they are true to where they are, I think they can be successful. There are some very serious folks—certain winemakers make a wonderful product. Those who grow their own grapes, engage with the local conditions and respect their own vinification are very serious. The best Michigan wine comes from right nearby—Wyncroft Winery in Buchanan. Hickory Creek is a great little winery that makes great Chardonnay. Round Barn makes great sparkling wine that we really enjoy. They are all favorites. Also, there are some great local breweries, such as Greenbush and a newer one, Tapistry.
EM: I noticed that you mark certain ingredients as coming from Michigan on the menu at Everest. Is that important to you?
CJ: For years I never said where the ingredients come from, but now I do. I knew where it came from, of course, but now I say so. People want to know. It makes me even more proud when I know exactly what I’m serving. I do wish the seasons were longer here, though!
EM: How do you think of the relationship between a great restaurant and its local farm community?
CJ: We have a conversation with farmers. We speak the same language. We try to make the best use of what they give us. A restaurant has to work very closely with farmers. You have to build a relationship. You have to be flexible, to change your menu on a daily or weekly basis to work exactly with what your farmers have.
And what you do with ingredients changes intimately. Apples taste different at first, right after picking, so you might do a savory dish—but after three weeks they are sweeter and better for a dessert. And with certain apples you have to wait for the flavor to develop. Also, you have to change your recipes. For instance, with the first peas, they have more texture and so you would use them whole, but later, they will be sweeter, and so you make them into soup.
EM: How has your cooking changed over the last few years?
CJ: I think I’m advancing by becoming simpler but more sophisticated. I want the true flavor of what it is. Little touches to enhance it but never overwhelm it. You must always taste the true flavor of the ingredient.
EM: How do you cook at home?
CJ: It depends on who we are entertaining. I love to entertain! It can be very simple to very elaborate. I love to cook at home. My wife, Cynthia, is a very good collaborator. I try never to do things from the restaurant at home. Home cooking is not supposed to be the same as restaurant cooking!
EM: What would you like to see more of in Michiana?
CJ: More restaurants, better restaurants using the true, local food in a sincere way—though I rarely go out. I love to entertain at home when I’m here. Also, I would like to see more local, organic markets. There are not enough.
EM: What advice would you have for home cooks who want to improve their cooking?
CJ: Don’t be afraid of failure! You’re learning! Failure makes you stronger! Also, do not go for the complicated recipes. Simple is delicious.
EM: Do you still feel the same joy at making people happy with your food as when you started?