In our second installment of Meet a Chef, we are pleased to introduce you to local kitchen master Jules Botham. Jules can be depended upon to bring a smile into our bookstore, and to gush to our staff all about the latest issue of Lucky Peach or a beautiful new cookbook we’ve all been eyeing but a little intimidated to pick up. We take note when Jules tells us what’s new in her kitchen. Up until very recently Jules was the Head Chef at Aventura, and we are big fans of her tapas (that octopus, though!) and the delicate dance of saffron, manchego, and chorizo she’s choregraphed there. Jules just began a new job within the same local company (Product Management Chef at SavCo), so I was honored that she took the time to tell our readers about some of her favorite cookbooks, the chefs she admires, and her vocation, which, she describes as “the reciprocity of a chef and a diner, it’s really a beautifully poetic relationship of trading memories and emotions with food.” Meet Jules!
Tell me about your background as a chef. What brought you into the profession, how did you train, and how have you evolved as a chef? How do you continue to grow and be inspired in your work?
It took me a while to realize I wanted to be a chef, actually. For majority of my life I had dreams of being a veterinarian, then a pediatrician, a biologist – I was really science driven and hadn’t really considered the food industry as an avenue I could pursue. Food was always a hobby for me, I got such pleasure from feeding my friends and family. Outside of school, my roommate and I would go to the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market and pick up fresh, local food to cook and host family dinners for all of our closest friends. College really freed me up to be able to experiment and learn about all sorts of cultures and foods that had always interested me. I changed my major from pre-med to Program in the Environment and focused my major on the local and global food system midway through my Junior year at Michigan. It was around this same time that my Stepdad, Steve, planted this idea that I could go to culinary school and pursue food as a career. I don’t think I ever would have even put forth the thought into really cooking for a living if it hadn’t been for his support.
After college, I began working at a family friend’s restaurant in Farmington Hills, the same way most of us in the field do. I worked at a low wage and for lots of hours – way more than I had imagined, being the naïve college kid just entering the real world. That first job taught me so much more than a strong work ethic and finances, though. My chef and sous there were very willing to share information and their passion for food was definitely something that encouraged me to keep pushing through the struggle of a kitchen. I learned a lot through observing and absorbing other people’s motions. When you work with other chefs or cooks, you get to see techniques or systems that you either love or hate. Sometimes you make them your own and sometimes you vow to never be the same way. That is most definitely the way that I’ve learned the most – osmosis, if you will. And it’s still the way that I continue to learn, really, whether through working directly with other people, through reading (thanks to Literati’s incredibly diverse and rich culinary collection!), and with these wonderfully artistic documentaries that focus on the importance of food. I’m really fortunate to live in a day and age where the emphasis on food is so prevalent and people are finally willing to spend good money on good food.
My evolution as a chef has really been along two lines, first in a management aspect and second as a cook. Management includes knowledge of the business and what’s required to run a kitchen efficiently. Time management, organization, employee management, prepping for and running dinner service, working for customers, all of the behind the scenes processes are crucial to being successful in a restaurant. The cooking really becomes the easy part when all of the groundwork and systems are in place. Experience is the best way that I’ve learned to grasp these concepts, by constantly practicing them and looking for ways to improve them, whether it be by receiving feedback from customers or employees or by reflecting on an evening’s service. People have really been by biggest resource in these matters and I can’t express how important it is to take feedback constructively rather than hearing it as critiques or bashing. My style of working may work for me but it doesn’t always work with others and at the end of the day, this industry is such a team effort that it has to work for everybody.
My cooking has evolved as I’ve cooked all different styles of food and noticing what I’ve been able to identify with more than others. Some dishes resonate more with my personal experiences and background and it’s those types of foods that I see myself coming back to time and again. All chef’s food tells their own story of their lives – places they’ve been, smells and dishes that are associated with memories, or foods they grew up with. It’s our job as chefs to share those memories with others and to let diners create their own memories around those same dishes. When you think about the reciprocity of a chef and a diner, it’s really a beautifully poetic relationship of trading memories and emotions with food, and is by far the most rewarding part of creating food for others. My cooking is constantly changing as I travel to new places, eat others’ food, read about history of cultures new and old, and most importantly cook new foods. The only way to keep growing is to keep cooking. It’s the tried and true method of trial and error.
What’s your role at Aventura? What’s the story of this restaurant, and how do you tell that story through the meals that you create?
Since we last spoke, I’ve moved within our company (SavCo Hospitality) to our larger commissary kitchen as product development chef. Previously, my role at Aventura as Head Chef was to create and execute a seasonally changing menu, including weekly specials, manage the food and labor cost, and to manage the prep and dinner staff of our kitchen. It’s a huge job that requires a constant juggling of tasks like ordering, inventorying, costing, scheduling, expediting, and communicating that when done right can look like a beautiful or chaotic dance. Sometimes that dance looks like ballet and sometimes it can look more like a mosh pit, depending on the day!
Favorite ingredients to work with? Most beloved dishes?
My favorite ingredients to work with are by and far those that come locally from farms here in Ann Arbor. Ingredients are always fresher and taste more like themselves, usually grown in a more environmentally sustainable way, and travel minimally to get to your plate. You can’t make a great dish without starting with great ingredients – the dish is only equal to the sum of its parts and if those parts taste like garbage, so will your dish! Additionally, these relationships that are cultivated by supporting these local farmers who are a part of the same community as our diners and myself are able to develop and this symbiosis of respect and admiration develop. To me, supporting local food is the easiest way to have a positive impact on our environment and it benefits all of us in the community to do so. Farmers are able to make a living and continue to grow these wonderful crops, chefs receive the best ingredients to cook with, and diners get to taste the delicious fruits of both of these laborers.
Who are the chefs your admire? Why?
In today’s day and age there are so many chefs to admire that it kills me to have to narrow it down! If I had to pick I would say Sean Brock, David Chang, and Dan Barber are a few whose work plucks at my heartstrings. Sean Brock does an incredible job of showcasing of not only the ingredients, but also the techniques of the region that he grew up in. Sean has shared a style of southern cooking that defies all common ideas of the cuisine and presented it in such an artistic way. When I look at the breadth of work of David Chang, whether it be his work with restaurants (Momofuku, Ssam, Ma Peche, Milk Bar), his creation of my favorite food publication Lucky Peach, or his work in Mind of a Chef, my heart and mind want to explode. This is a chef whose creativity and ambition abound and he has found a way to cook his own food and share his ideas with the world through multiple avenues. I most admire the way that he can deconstruct and put back together a dish in a whole new way – taking the familiar and making a completely different and foreign dish is not an easy task but he does it flawlessly.
Finally, Dan Barber has recently become one of my favorites because of his deep rooted involvement in sustainable foods. I recently read his book, The Third Plate, and was swallowed up in his passion for being able to cultivate a sustainable food system to supply his restaurants. His attention to detail in ingredients, methods of farming, and execution of dishes that force diners to realize the difference in flavors of milk between two cows is awe-inspiring. He has a revolutionary style of cooking that causes diners to reflect on the foods that they’re eating without even realizing it. He is putting a conscience into his food and I love that.
Can you tell me about six cookbooks that you love?
Geez, this is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child! Here goes nothing…
Old favorites in no particular order:
Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (or anything by him and Sammi Tamimi for that matter) is a collection of vegetarian recipes that leave you satiated by the end without even realizing that there was not a touch of meat in the entire book. The flavor combinations in this book leave my pages covered in drool and me weak at the knees. As a bonus, the book is filled with the most beautiful photos of dishes.
Ideas in Food by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot – this book is what pulled apart my brain and reconstructed it in the same way that they create dishes. My entire train of thought shifted after reading this book and pushed me to look at food in an entirely different way than ever before. The constant curiosity and exploration for new ways of cooking and experimentation is a real inspiration to the craft of cooking. A must read for any inquisitive mind and one that I find myself coming back to frequently.
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee – This book is the bible of all cooking. Harold McGee answers any questions as to why things happen the way that they do in an oven, in a mixing bowl, in a pan. I grew up watching Alton Brown all of the time and this book is like having him in the kitchen with you as you cook. For the science-centered mind, this book is incredible and I’ve always loved knowing why things cook they way that they do.
New favorites in no particular order:
Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton – I bought this book immediately after finishing Blood, Bones, and Butter. I love how it’s written in kitchen-hand recipe format with notes that look so similar to notes in my journals. The recipes are a wonderful combination of under utilized ingredients put together in well described techniques that make it easy to learn and develop your own cooking skills. It’s such a interesting reality to be able to read her autobiography side by side and see the influences of her life come into fruition in her recipes.
Bar Tartine – I have this mentality of, “If they can make it, so can I,” and this book only strengthens that feeling. Bar Tartine has recipes for nearly every single thing you’d want to make from scratch and turn your pantry into a larder with all of your own homemade spices, vinegars, pickles, yogurt. The food is the most beautifully plated, intricately flavored and so damn creative it makes my heart sing. Even if you never cook anything from this book, the photos are outstanding and are works of art in themselves.
A Girl and Her Greens – I adore April Bloomfield and her sequel to A Girl and Her Pig did not disappoint me! My love for vegetables has grown even more after reading this book. I love how it’s broken into seasonality and her “root to leaf” style of cooking leaves me feeling guilt-free by utilizing the entire vegetable. It’s a lovely way of learning how to cook seasonally and meat-less, which is definitely a style that I’ve come to enjoy very much.