Chicago | May 20, 2020 9:57 am

First Meal Back: Chef CJ Jacobson

The “Top Chef” alum dishes on his home pantry, breadmaking and the restaurants he misses most

chef cj jacobson first meal back
Chef CJ Jacobson of the Lettuce Entertain You group

In honor of all of the restaurants we dearly miss and can’t wait to get back to, we’re asking some of the country’s most decorated chefs to tell us about the meals that will be at the top of their list when Stay at Home orders finally lift. This is First Meal Back.

CJ Jacobson, chef-partner at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises standouts Ēma and Aba, is an unlikely Chicagoan. Standing six feet, 10 inches with close-cropped sandy red hair and a wide, easy smile, the Orange County native exudes an affable, laid-back charm more befitting of a sun-drenched beachfront bistro than Fulton Market’s blustery restaurant row. Nevertheless, the celebrated Top Chef alum has made the Windy City his home, helming two esteemed Mediterranean-accented outposts and taking advantage of all the culinary and extracurricular delights his West Town neighborhood offers. That was until the COVID-19 virus shut down the city’s many dining rooms practically overnight and Jacobson, a cancer survivor, was forced to take the quarantine very seriously.

These days Jacobson is still overseeing Ēma and Aba’s combined takeout and delivery operations, albeit most often from a safe social distance. As a part of our new series, First Meal Back, we caught up with the music-obsessed chef to find out what future dishes he’s drooling over, what he’s been cooking at home, and what he thinks Chicago’s food and drink scene might look like after the coronavirus dust finally settles.

InsideHook: Where are you most looking forward to having a meal again?

CJ Jacbson: Starting at breakfast, I would love to go to brunch at Café Marie-Jeanne. I’ve been going there since I moved here about five years ago and I just like the whole vibe. They always play good music — they almost always have a Pavement track on, I don’t know how, dude, but every single time. And they always have foie gras on the menu — a nice, thick slice. It’s kind of ridiculous. That’s the center of my breakfast, and then go from there. I always go solo, so when I roll into the bar I’ll be in there for like two and a half, three hours. I feel like I rock out a little too hard sometimes, but I love it.

If I’m thinking about lunch, I’d want a burger at Au Cheval. It’s a super, super solid burger, shockingly good every time. And they always play great music. Their sound system is sick — they do a really good job with that vintage-y sound, the way it echoes around, but there’s always tons of people, too, so it doesn’t echo as much. I love that a lot. I’d also get a Negroni, always my drink of choice. I don’t really drink so much now, but I loved the Negronis there. 

For dinnertime, my gal and I are totally missing Sushi-san. I have a friend named Kaze there and we sit in front of him and he hands us the freshest stuff. The rice is still warm and the fish is just beautiful. He loves what he does and you see that in what he creates. 

The next thing I’m really dying for is Leo’s Taco Truck in LA. It’s more of a late-night thing, so I guess my evolution would be somehow transporting to Los Angeles after dinner. Their pastor — they always have some crazy maestro slicing it off and flipping the pineapple and catching it without looking, it’s gnarly. There’s like three picnic tables full of salsas and pickled stuff and things that melt my face off and make me look silly and tons of chopped cilantro. I always think, “God, who chopped that shit and for how long?” It’s amazing to see.

Where are you most looking forward to getting a drink again?

I stopped drinking about a year and a half ago, but I still love going to a few different spots. I like Three Dots and a Dash, I like Broken Shaker a lot and, like I said, Au Cheval because they play rad music.

Another place I really like is Green Street Smoked Meats. They have these big vintage speakers and they’ll play vinyl, which is the best. One time I was there and they were playing High on Fire, which is a pretty solid droney metal band. It was so loud and the place was just packed. I was like, this is one of the coolest things about Chicago, that a restaurant can blast metal music and everyone’s fine.

Is there a particular food you’ve been craving that you haven’t been able to get?

Oddly, it’s pizza. The weird thing is I’ve gotten really good at making pizza at home. I got to a point where I was probably making too many pizzas and my girlfriend had to shut it down, and now we’re doing this intermittent fasting thing we committed to. But anyway, even though I make really great pizza, I’m craving just going to a pizzeria and getting a hot pie, something a little more New York-y with that molten cheese that burns your mouth taking that first bite.

What’s been the most-utilized item in your home pantry?

I have a couple. I would say lemons, for sure. You can’t shake that from a California chef. I’ve recently put fennel and coriander in my pepper mill and I put that on almost everything now. I just love it to death because it goes with Asian stuff, Italian stuff, the California stuff that I like to cook — that’s probably the biggest thing.

We also have a pretty solid foundation of cheese here. I always have a big block of Parm, little blocks of cheddar and mozzarella because it’s melty, so it’s kind of impossible not to want. I always have three or four olive oils as well. I’m looking at them now, very well stocked on that. 

Have you gotten into the sourdough starter craze?

Yeah, I’ve got two. Currently, I have a wheat one that shifts a little between whole wheat and rye, and then I’ve just got my basic unbleached King Arthur guy going. And I just threw away three other ones that got really, really weird. I had a chocolate starter I was working with and it started looking like marble on the outside because of the cocoa. It was a weird color. I don’t know where the purple came from …

How has switching to takeout and delivery changed the way you do business?

It’s changed a lot. At Ēma and Aba, we normally have some more cheffy items that sort of define the menu. But now it’s like, “Alright, we’re trying to make as much money as possible, so what makes the most sense? And what loss could we possibly have on items that don’t sell as much?” It’s not as exciting because we don’t have any super seasonal items right now. We’ll be adding asparagus and corn going forward, but the menu’s just a lot smaller.

We did get the process down to a science. Lettuce [Entertain You, the restaurant group] is very good at systems, and they’re so streamlined with it now it’ll be interesting to see what it looks like when we do open up. We definitely have a gameplan, but we still need to see what those restrictions are going to be. 

What do you miss most about cooking for dine-in service?

I miss the energy. I miss all my staff and seeing people interacting with them. I miss being able to do special things for diners or friends that come in. I always have something special on hand that I can make on the fly and I miss that rush of energy, like, “Oh, so-and-so’s here. I know they’d love this.” I miss being put on the spot with my creative juices, which have been on pause for awhile. You can’t always experiment on your girlfriend. Maybe she doesn’t want that random pork dish you just thought up.

What have you learned during this process?

I’ve been in very strict quarantine because I’m an at-risk person, so I’ve gone out a lot less. Being away from the thick of it, you have to get past the idea that your worth is defined by your work. You want to feel needed and wanted, but it’s in a different capacity now and that’s been harder to quantify for me.

We’re also planning to open in Austin, Texas, soon, so I’ve been thinking about the market there and how we’re going to present ourselves. When you’re able to step away from your food and look at it from a different angle, you almost get a diner’s perspective. We always try to think that way, but really looking at it fresh again is the coolest thing. I notice things now walking in when I haven’t been there for three or four days, just like, “Oh wow.” 

When you take a step back, you also learn how important it is to keep growing as a chef. You should always have a side project, a culinary side project, whether it be fermentation or a genre of Japanese cuisine you’ve always wanted to learn. I’ve started to put that in place for myself. I’m obsessed with food, I’m always reading and learning about food, but instead of just scrolling through Instagram and seeing what other chefs are doing, I’ll do a deep dive into something to keep expanding my knowledge. The next thing I know, I’ve spent three hours reading about Kaiseki courses. It’s kept me sane.

How have some of your fellow chefs and restaurateurs surprised or impressed you during the lockdown?

I think it’s cool when chefs do stuff that their restaurants don’t normally do. In LA, [Vespertine chef] Jordan Kahn is doing Southern cuisine and here, Noah from Oriole just announced he was going to start doing some different things. It just shows their passion for food and their drive to do whatever it takes to feed their staff and get money into the restaurant. 

I really don’t have any critiques, to be honest. It’s all hands on deck and everybody is figuring out how to show as much courage and be as brave as possible to get stuff sold.

Do you think Chicago’s restaurant industry will be back to business as usual someday?

I mean, for me, I’m optimistic, especially with Aba, because it’s the largest restaurant I’ve ever worked in. We have that big patio space, so hopefully we can open back up in summertime when the weather’s nice and use social distancing.

Overall, I think certain aspects will get a lot stronger. I think we’ll always be a little bit more cautious and safe. A lot more people will be washing their hands the appropriate amount. As chefs, we’re so used to washing our hands all the time for any little thing. When I’m in my kitchen at home, I wash my hands probably 25 times. It’s just the way it goes. 

I also think there will be a lot of fallout. I think the biggest change will be in New York and Los Angeles, where rents are a huge problem. Hopefully what will come out of COVID is a sort of hard re-looking at our industry. The virus came at this time when things were boiling over as far as treatment of employees and lifestyle, and we can’t fall back on the old ways, especially now.

I don’t know another occupation where your identity is so rooted in your job, just completely synonymous. And then all of a sudden, it was like, “Alright, guys. We’re going to put you on hold to sit and fester with no money and no business.” It’s this braid that was forced to come untangled and it’s very strange. When we get back, we’ll have to look at how much food costs and how much prices will change from a consumer expectation standpoint. A lot of the little small places might not be around anymore. No matter what, it’ll be interesting to see where people choose to go back first. I think a lot of people are thinking about that — I know I am.