Jason Baker's first food memory dates back to a childhood visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. An eight-year-old Jason stood fascinated by a Jackson Pollock painting. The work was created using layers upon layers of paint. "It looked like frosting," Baker recalls, "and I thought, 'That's really f&@%ing cool. I wonder what that tastes like.'"
Today Baker still counts Pollock among his heroes. And when you hear him talk about food, you understand why. "Pollock was an artist, but he was a tough guy. He was kind of the cigarette smoking, beer drinking -- you know -- breakin' the boundaries kind of guy."
Breaking the rules is big with Jason Baker, who describes his favorite ingredient as "something he's never seen before." After working with a series of notable chefs including Paul Purdhomme and John Harris and graduating from the famous Le Cordon Bleu, Baker returned to the Capital Region. These days, he's breaking the rules in the kitchen of The Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark, where he's been putting his own spin on classic bistro food since November.
He's someone we've wanted to meet for a while now, so last week we asked him a few questions about food, art, inspiration, grocery shopping, and his love of a passive-aggressive French kitchen.
What inspires you?
A lot of things I guess. My favorite ingredient is something I've never seen before. I have no idea what it's going to do and how it's going to react or what the flavor profile is going to end up being in the end.
So what inspires me to cook is, I guess, the unknown. Even if I took a carrot and said "These are the qualities that it has -- what hasn't been done with it?" I really push myself in that direction -- to be creative -- which comes naturally to me.
I studied art for about 10 years. I was an art major. But I realized that if I remained a painter I was probably going to die penniless. But then I realized you could actually stimulate more senses with food.
So what inspires me is pushing the unknown, pushing boundaries. But at the same time, keeping the product intact and the idea of who we are. I mean, we're a bistro and that's 50 percent of what drives me. But I think the word "bistro" gets bastardized a lot. Because it's so easy to put "Bistro" on a sign, you know... but they're serving grilled f*&%n' chicken with asparagus, you know? That's not bistro food.
What do you think a bistro should be?
For lack of a better way to put it: "cheap eats." I have skirt steak on the menu -- that's very indicative of bistro. Stuff that you can spread on bread, good wine. Simplicity.
But this is where I come in. I wouldn't really say my food is simple. [Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark owner] Kevin [Everleth] brought me on board to put my spin on bistro. Like, a bistro dish would be three ingredients -- steak and two other things. I can still do that, put three ingredients on a plate ... but do steak and something different and something different. Let's make bistro cool ... let's make people walk away and feel like they went to a real French bistro.
What's your philosophy about what the dining experience should be?
I think eating out is a luxury, and think it should be treated that way. If you can make it in your home, why not make it in your home? Why go out and pay somebody else to do it if you can do it?
Number one, from the time you walk in you should feel like you're the star of the night -- by the time you're greeted, sat at your table and you get your wine service. And then the food should be something hopefully that you can't eat at home because if you can make it at home then, I'm not doing my job or I'm lazy or I'm not qualified.
You combine art and food -- do you go through periods -- things you're intrigued or obsessed with -- like a painter or sculptor might?
Sure. My mode right now is more of a plate presentation mode, where I'm using what they call satellite bowls. They're these large bowls with a very nice rim on them and then they have a nice scoop and there's this flat plating surface on the bottom. So right now I have all the plate presentations that I've been designing or drafting out and they have to fit in that space. And if they don't fit in that space I'm not happy. I also go through ingredient phases.
What's one of your favorite dishes that you've invented?
You know, it's funny, because part of my process is that I try not to look back. You know? I'm constantly looking forward, so for lack of a better way to put it -- a lot of my dishes are disposable. I create, like, disposable dishes.
But one I just did recently -- a customer came in and wanted a caviar course and he was like, "I don't care how much." Caviar can be really boring because it's the standard minced shallot, minced caper, minced cornichon, separated hard-boiled egg -- but it's classic because it works.
So when you do caviar service there's usually three things you bring to the table -- here's the caviar, it's chilled down -- and then you get your plate of accoutrements and then you get your blinis. Well, I made a fourth plate of out-of-the-box things that also go well with f$&%n' caviar -- just different items. Chocolate goes really well with caviar so I did a chocolate foaming thing that you could actually scoop bubbles on your caviar. I did some freeze dried items -- a few different kinds of gels. You know those Listerine things you put on your tongue? I made those but with the flavor of shallot, so you'd put that on your tongue and fill your mouth with the gentle wave of shallot and then eat the spoonful of caviar. And in my mind I'm thinking, when you put minced shallot onto the caviar it actually f*#&s with the texture of the caviar. So this way all these garnishes were kind of weightless and nonexistent -- so you just get the flavor of the garnish and you eat the caviar.
And this guy had some coin and he said, "I've eaten caviar all over, man -- Per Se, French Laundry -- and that was awesome." And that was really the hugest complement I could get, because you're taking something that is timeless and classic -- and it was all original ideas. I was eating some of the extra caviar and I thought, when you put this stuff on it you lose the supple element of the caviar and you're just eating onion and caviar. So how we do that -- how can we get those flavors there and not f*#&k with the caviar?
Is it hard to pull Capital Region diners along and get them to try something new?
Honestly, I've been surprised at how easy it's been here. A few weeks ago I sold eight pounds of duck testicles in one week. They're really good. They taste just like foie gras. If you like foie gras, you'll like duck testicles.
You're from Greenwich, in Washington County, but you've traveled a lot and worked in some amazing kitchens, why did you come back to the Capital Region?
My family. I'm a very family-oriented person. I love my father dearly, and my mother. I love the area. I like the agricultural scene. I'm a little disappointed that I can't get more ingredients from Washington County here because of the shipping. If I had more time I would start a little company that would drive around pick up all this s*#t and bring it down here.
I'm such a Washington County guy. It's like the grass isn't any f*#&n' greener than Washington County (laughs) -- and it's true. But it's forcing me to look around here a little more for local ingredients, Chatham and Columbia County.
When you're shopping for your kitchen at home, where do you go?
Honestly? The Asian Market on Central Avenue. Their vegetables are awesome. I eat a lot of fish. I'll pick up a bass and just bring it home and clean it up. And honestly, the thing is, I can walk out of there with three bags full for like $44 -- and that will be like three fresh bass and a bag full of vegetables and a bag of Asian cracker snacks and stuff like that.
I went in there once when I had a catering gig at somebody's house and I had no budget. It was just, "Give me the receipt for whatever you buy." I went in there, I had all kinds of stuff. I was trying to spend money -- lobsters, fresh persimmons -- my cart was loaded. And it came to $127. Anybody who likes good fresh ingrediants should go there.
What's your favorite comfort food?
Cheese. I love cheese.
As out-of-the-box as you are, you learned in a French style, and you've kind of stuck with that. What is it about French cooking that you like.
Just structure. It's funny because as out-of-the-box as I like to get, you need that foundation -- you need the diving board before you can jump off the diving board.
I like the structure and the almost militant type of mentality that the French have. I come from a a military family and a French kitchen is like that. There is the chief, the chef, and there's the sous chef, the second in command. It's a very militant atmosphere and there's a right and a wrong.
It's funny because it's a very passive aggressive atmosphere, you know? There's the militant aspect, but there's so much passion and love that goes into French cooking, too. It's like you can get a pat on the back and a slap on the hand in the same 15 seconds.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Yes, The Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark does advertise on All Over Albany. We've always had a great deal of respect for the work they do. The reviews since Jason took over the have been very favorable, and the fact is that he's a really interesting guy. We really enjoyed meeting him -- and we thought you would, too.
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