The characteristics of truly successful chefs are work ethic, talent, passion, commitment and confidence. Confidence without the other pre-requisites is like a house without a foundation or a ship without a rudder. When all components are in place it is easy to see how a chef can bring his or her goals to fruition.
Jamie Keating is such a chef. From his days as a student in my classroom he exhibited the desire to excel and the willingness to learn. I have had the pleasure of following his career since he walked across the stage at graduation. I have vivid memories of a day in mid- 2003 (I think), the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, tryouts for the American Culinary Federation Olympic Teams. The NRA Show was on my calendar for more than 20 years straight, but this year was special: a former student was in the running for a spot on a U.S. Team. Jamie’s work was, of course, exceptional. He was young and not well known among the ranks of the ACF, yet here he was. Waiting for the results was agonizing for Jamie – I was proud regardless of the results. Jamie was selected as an alternate team member and although he was disappointed, he accepted realizing that this was a door opener.
Move ahead to 2008 and Jamie was now a full member of the U.S. Team headed for Erfurt, Germany. It was Olympic time! As I expected, Chef Keating returned with a gold medal. Leading up to the event I made sure that every student at Paul Smith’s College – his alma mater, wore the patch of the U.S. Team in support of his efforts. Jamie made everyone proud and served as a focus of motivation for every student in that program.
This is one example of many that allows me to say how much I admire this chef. Jamie does this and much more while remaining a supportive, participative husband and father of four. He is currently chef/owner of a fine dining restaurant, catering company, and event service provider at a conference center in Georgia. He agreed to this interview as a way to briefly tell his story, reference who and what drives him and offer some words of wisdom for young aspiring chefs.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in the kitchen?
Chef Keating states, without hesitation that he is “self-driven”. That may certainly be the case, but I have observed that a pursuit of excellence has always been a driver for him and that the support of his family is paramount to his success.
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“I have been lucky enough to have several mentors: to name a few: Chef Thomas Duggan, Chef Paul Sorgule, Chef Charles Carroll, CEC, Chef Domenic Buffone, Chefs Thomas Murray and Fritz Doss, Chef James McCallister, CEC, and Chef Chas Kelly.”
3. What style of cooking best portrays your passion?
Chef Keating provided a non-traditional answer: “Organized cooking! Sounds odd maybe, maybe not.” One only needs to watch him work, view his kitchen or observe how he moves to understand his reference. An organized chef with a strong grasp on the foundations of classical cooking can shine with any cuisine. Understanding and execution require organization.
4. Do you have a food philosophy that drives your menu decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“Know your audience. Whether you’re catering a party for 3,000, a wedding for 150, or a 50th wedding anniversary in the restaurant you need to have a careful balance of what you think would work vs. what your guests would desire. This includes time of day, season, weather, event timeline, ethnicity, special preferences, event/restaurant flow of experience, etc. My goal/philosophy is to think as far in advance as possible that our guests really and truly leave with sense of bliss and not really knowing what happened or how we accomplished this task! Secondly, you cant be everything to everybody. Trust me I learned this the hard way. Don’t write a menu for yourself unless you expect to keep the restaurant alive by dining in it every night. Of course the other items such as season, availability, etc. steer us in a direction however, in my opinion the best approach is to listen to your new and frequent diners – they drive my menus.”
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
“Allow me to set the stage:
Site: The Holiday Inn Somerset, New Jersey
Year: 1988 (I was a Junior in High School)
Situation: I was a server on the Sunday brunch schedule and the action chef called in sick!
Solution: (at least this was the thought) Chef asked me if I wanted to give the station a shot. I replied: “yes, of course! Just one question Chef?” He replied, “OK, just one right now as we open in 20 minutes!” I Said do I get to wear the tall white hat /toque and a real chef coat?” Chef said, “Yes but, remember you have to earn your wings!”
Brief outline of my first real culinary experience:
• I was doing great for the first hour; carving ham, turning waffle irons over, making the simple/classic omelets as well as trying every way possible to stay as clean and organized as I could.
• Well church let out and I was aware of this as a server but, I learned quickly that even though I was in the front of the house as an action chef, the rush comes quick, hard and if you are to survive you have to be a gambler!
• OK so now there were 40 hungry patrons in my line. With two Band-Aids on my fingers inside my latex glove as a result of carving the ham recklessly along with the multiple burnt omelets and crazy requests like a Spanish Omelet, I was in a bad place.
Epiphany: I have always been driven, a person when given an opportunity to prove himself will do everything to prove that I can adapt. This was not just a task… what I realized was that I already knew I had a passion for being a servant but had no idea until this point what it felt like to create and serve a dish at the same time face-to-face with a guest. This was a turning point for me and my future.”
6. What is your pet peeve about working in restaurants?
“Those who treat the day like the movie Ground Hogs Day! Serious restaurant people must stay fresh in both the front and back of house. Don’t write a “specials menu” to move unused product; write a concept menu, one that would give you the basis for future menu items; a menu that requires thought and creativity.”
7. Who are your most valuable players in the restaurant where you currently work?
“THE FOUNDATIONAL PLAYERS: back servers, runners, prep cooks and dishwashers! During Chef Table presentations and our kitchen tours, I find time to introduce the diners to the future of our industry and the backbone of our restaurant: our foundational players.”
8. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks looking to make their mark in kitchens, what would you tell them?
“TAKE NOTES, LISTEN and CARE…. If you ask my team they will tell you that I do not care to be called chef unless we are in the presence of a guest. They are to call me by my name: Jamie! WHY, one may ask? Well, I feel that so many individuals can become robotic by always saying, “Yes chef, No chef, SORRY chef!” Chef Jamie’s kitchen is a personal environment for all who work there.
*As a young culinarian you need to take mental and hand written notes regarding what you did right or where personal improvements are needed.
*Listen then speak! Don’t ask questions just to ask a question. Listen to the individual your tutoring under. Prove your value within the restaurant by keeping your head down and showing how fast you can learn. Don’t be the squeaky wheel.
*A person with a caring attitude is one who considers some of these important points: waste, fellow co-workers, uniform/grooming, having a sense of urgency, studying your craft daily but most importantly doing the right thing, especially when no one is looking.
*Lastly, COOK for every table as if they were your loved ones, every time. Trust me, try this one shift and you will see the results immediately. It’s infectious as sooner or later the servers will take on the same attitude.”
9. When you hire people to work in your kitchen what traits are you looking for?
“I start of my interviews with a handshake then ask the potential team member to follow me for a tour! After about 20 or so steps if I turn around and they are 8 steps behind me I end the interview right there! I am not a resume person nor am I one that really cares where you have worked. I’ve seen plenty but I will say that those that come in organized, prepared, determined and scared, yes scared have been the ones that will succeed! Scared you ask? Well you can’t be brave if you have not felt fear. Fear can be a powerful ally. Use it to your advantage along with the attitude that you’re only as good as the last meal you cooked.”
10. If you were not cooking, what would you choose to do for a career?
“ I would have become an architect or in a position of planning and organizing”
11. What would you like people to know about your current restaurant and the food that you produce?
“Some feel that we are over the top For Columbus, GA while the majority feel pleased and comfortable with what we offer.”
I dug up a few guest comments from Yelp to demonstrate the typical response to their experience at Jamie Keating’s restaurant: Epic:
“Whether you are dining alone or with friends, it’s easy to get lost in the foodie adventure that Epic provides. Each course displays the art of presentation as well as flavor. The complexity of flavors present not just in the food, but also in the array of cocktails mixed up by the Epic mixologist. All served up with the southern charm one expects to garnish the region.”
“Fantastic experience! The bar and Ryan the bartender/ mixologist are the best-kept secret in Columbus. The drinks and appetizers are unbelievably good and well priced for the high quality you get.
We stopped in for a quick drink and app on a Friday night at the bar. Instead we got a two and a half hour journey that none of us will soon forget. From the expertly crafted cocktails, to the delicious appetizers, then to the complimentary starters and dessert, then the personal tour of the kitchen and finally letting us experience their private patio overlooking the waterfall every step showed the entire staffs’ pride and passion in giving you the best culinary experience of your life.
Go for drinks and an appetizer, go for a romantic dinner, just go and experience this truly one of a kind restaurant.”
Jamie Keating was Executive Sous Chef for The Hyatt Regency, Executive Chef for Milliken House, spent time in Paris, France at Arpege’ Restaurant, graduated from Paul Smith’s College and attended advanced classes at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He is currently a Certified Executive Chef through the American Culinary Federation and the owner/operating chef of Epic Restaurant JK Culinary catering and the food operations of River Mill Event Center all in Columbus, Georgia. He is married to Melissa (Rostak) Keating – Vice president of operations for their company, and father to Christopher, Nicholas, Jack and Katie.
If you are EVER within 50 miles of Columbus, Georgia you MUST make a reservation at Epic Restaurant. Find out more about this exceptional operation and Jamie’s Team by visiting their website:
Enjoy this classic southern recipe from the files of Jamie’s culinary operations:
Fried Green Tomato Salad
by: Chef Jamie P. Keating, CEC
Fried Green Tomatoes
2 each green tomatoes, sliced ¼ inch thick
2 cup all purpose flour, seasoned
3 each eggs lightly beaten
4 cups cornflakes, ground
1 each red onions, thinly sliced
1 cup white wine vinegar
½ cup water
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 ounces Mache lettuces
1 each garlic clove, chopped
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup pimentos, peeled, seeded and diced
To Taste: salt & white pepper
3 strips bacon, cooked & finely chopped
¼ cup Mayonnaise
¼ cup sour cream
1 T. Buttermilk
1 tsp. distilled white vinegar
1/8 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. Basil Puree
¼ cup onions, diced and caramelized
1/8 tsp. roasted garlic
Pickled Red Onions
1 each medium red onion, peeled
1 cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 T. salt
2 cups water
* Slice onions ¼ inch thick. Add all ingredients into a two-quart saucepot. Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and place pot in ice water bath. Allow the onions to cool before serving.
* Finish and Serve. Eight fried angel hair pasta noodles with chili dust.
Breading of Tomatoes
• In separate bowls, season flour, beat eggs & ground cornflakes.
• Dredge tomato slices with flour, then egg and finish with even coating of cornflakes.
• Reserve tomatoes for service in refrigerator.
• Sauté garlic and add cream. Bring to a simmer. Add pimentos, blending in Vita Mixer.
• Season to taste.
Basil Boca Dressing
• Mix all ingredients in medium size bowl, adjust seasoning to taste.
• Fry tomatoes at 350 degrees until golden brown. Move to towel lined tray to drain excess grease. Season with kosher salt.
• Toss greens in Bacon Basil Dressing & plate.