“I was always a fucking maniac,” says Jesse Schenker, the Iron Chef-winning, James Beard-nominated mastermind behind New York restaurants Recette and the Gander. “I’d climb out of my crib and start tearing up the wallpaper. They had to put a lock on my door.”
Luckily for patrons savoring his refined but playful 10-course tasting menus at Recette, or those plunging forks into beet tortelli with goat yogurt at the Gander, Schenker’s boundless energy is a boon to the kitchen.
“I think I was two, and I remember being in my nana’s lap as she put a paring knife to an apple. My leg stopped tapping and I was just so zoned in on her hand on the knife. The next time I tried to cut up an apple my mom was like, ‘What are you doing? You can’t play with knives,’” he remembers.
Food was just instinctual for me. The kind of presents I asked for were a Cuisinart and set of Wüsthof knives.
That early fascination with cooking steered the hyperactive Florida native towards an unconventional childhood—one where activities like riding dirt bikes and building forts were replaced by menu collecting and watching episodes of Great Chefs-Great Cities. “Food was just instinctual for me,” Schenker recalls. “The kind of presents I asked for were a Cuisinart and set of Wüsthof knives.”
Schenker started his career in restaurants “the old-fashioned way,” working at McDonald’s and washing dishes. This led to the Florida kitchens of Café Maxx in Pompano Beach, Mark’s Las Olas, and City Cellar Wine Bar and Grill. In New York, he spent a year and a half as chef de partie at Gordon Ramsay at the London, staged at Per Se and Jean Georges, and orchestrated multi-course, “French Laundry-inspired dinners” for private parties before opening Recette when he was just 27. “I had energy. And I was nuts,” he says.
Schenker has no qualms about exposing his high-octane past, as revealed in his head-turning new memoir All or Nothing (HarperCollins). “Everyone close to me said I should write a book but I wasn’t ready. I just started taping into a Dictaphone until I figured out what direction I wanted to take it. HarperCollins wanted me to write my story as is, so there was no turning back, ” he explains.
A high-school dropout at turns hooked on crack, heroin, and work, Schenker’s tale of rebellion is also one of redemption. “In this world of Breaking Bad, I think it’s fitting. I hope I can help people struggling—whether it’s addiction or enabling their children,” he says. “I’ve always been a tenacious, all-or-nothing person. I never knew how to live in the moment, and I still don’t. It’s brought me to really dark, but also some great places.”
Like his restaurants, for instance.
From stoner-friendly French toast to the simplicity of Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, here are 10 of the dishes that have been vital to Schenker’s triumphant comeback.
Split Pea Soup with Flanken
From about the time I was four I helped make this soup with my great grandmother, and then my grandmother, for Passover and other Jewish holidays. It’s the dish that sparked my interest in food and cooking. I learned how to sweat the onions and garlic, the importance of kosher salt, and how to layer flavors. Serving it with flanken, which is basically a cut of short rib, was just my grandmother’s thing. The next day we’d spread it on matzoh. Today, I use her short-rib method and mix it up with turnips, rutabagas, or yellow peas, and add actual bone marrow and red wine to enrich the recipe. (Photo: James Ransom/Food52)
Matzoh Ball Soup
My mother made a killer matzoh ball soup, but unfortunately only on the holidays. She got her recipe from her mother and made it every year for Passover or Yom Kippur. I remember her skimming the fat off and resting her little silver spoon on the coaster. She laminated a placemat for me so that I could help cut the celery or carrots. But when I tried to make the soup, the matzoh were dense, hard rocks. (Photo: finecooking.com)
PB&J “Pain Perdue”
When I was young and smoked a lot of pot, my friend Fred and I would experiment in the kitchen. One time, we got totally wasted and put jelly and peanut butter on leftover challah bread and fried it in a pan. When I opened Recette I put it on the brunch menu and refined it, using quality brioche, fresh berries, and Earl Grey milk jam. People just love it. (Photo: Foodspotting)
I was backpacking through Europe and headed to Barcelona. One day, I was eating at a tapas joint by the water and I couldn’t believe the quality of the canned fish. The canned bacalao was the best in the world. The salt-cod fritters the street vendors on La Rambla made are what influenced mine at Recette. They were using fresh mayonnaise, but I said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s put some curry in.’ (Photo: Urbanspoon)
Oysters and Pearls at Per Se (New York, NY)
The French Laundry was a huge influence on me. It represented so much of what I wanted to be as a chef. So I took Lindsay, my then girlfriend and now wife, to lunch at Per Se because it was cheaper than dinner. We had the Oysters and Pearls (oysters, tapioca, caviar) and it was groundbreaking. I remember taking a bite and thinking, ‘Holy shit. Less is more.’ (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Caviar Pie at Café Maxx (Pompano Beach, FL)
I was probably 16 when I got the job at Café Maxx, where Oliver Saucy was one of my first mentors. A turning point for me was his caviar pie. Here you have a chef who since the 80s has been putting together crème fraîche and onions, layering in three different kinds of caviar, and cutting it into a wedge. This was his interpretation. It was a big moment for me when I saw it, because I realized you didn’t have to follow culinary school rules like a certain sauce being A, B, C, or D. (Photo: PBS)
Seafood at Marea (New York, NY)
I went to Marea before Recette opened, and I remember we had all the crudo, the fusilli with baby octopus and bone marrow, and the sea urchin crostini with lardo. It was an Italian restaurant focusing on seafood. There wasn’t anything really new going on, nothing revelatory, but it was just so fucking amazing. It pushed me in the direction of focusing on ingredients. An innovative dish can have just lemon, olive oil, and salt; it doesn’t need to have a rare component or 77 different ingredients. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Trout Tartare at Jean-Georges (New York, NY)
Jean-Georges’ trout tartare with horseradish yuzu and trout roe has a pop of acidity that’s not overkill. It has refocused my passion for simplicity and scrumptiousness. I like to use that word a good amount because you can have the right techniques and products, but at the end of the day, the food just needs to taste good. I’ve been to Jean-Georges numerous times and the most recent was probably the best. Talk about flavor and spice. (Photo: Yelp)
Uni and Yoba at Soto (New York, NY)
If I could go anywhere three or four nights a week, and money was no object, it would be Soto. And not for the sushi, but the uni and yoba starter. It’s basically two ingredients with a little bit of dashi, and it just blows my mind. It kind of opened up the world of Japanese cooking and the concept of umami for me. I use seaweed and mushrooms in my sauces to add umami richness. I don’t claim to know the culture, but I do know what adding shiitake does to sauce. (Photo via CN Traveler)
Polenta with Morels and Truffles at Scarpetta (New York, NY)
On the night I proposed to Lindsay I hadn’t taken a day off in a long time. We snuck out of Recette for a 10pm reservation at Scarpetta, simply because it was nearby. It’s not that the polenta wasn’t delicious, but it’s more about what it symbolized—seeing the smile on her face when I asked, and knowing I was going to spend the rest of my life with her. (Photo: Miami New Times)