My first experience with fine dining was when I walked into the Jazz Factory in Huntsville, Alabama looking for a job. Without much ado, I was asked to return for training. It was one of the very few fine dining spots in Huntsville at that time, and over the next week, I and my fellow trainees learned the menu, tasted the food and wine, and started at the bottom rung FOH as food runners, water fillers, and table bussers. I worked as a server for a while, and soon moved into bartending. I even moved two blocks away, and for about four years during my mid-20s, I grew into an adult with my Jazz Factory family. This was one of the most transformative work experiences I’ve ever had because it introduced me to the world of food as an intellectual pursuit rather than mere sustenance. In an odd way, it is thanks to the Jazz Factory that I returned to college. I would spend my days in classrooms and books, and my evenings standing over a table or the bar talking to the regulars and the random strangers, having no idea what a huge benefit this would be to my future role as a teacher. I also learned the intricacies of a menu, which ultimately benefited my doctoral dissertation. In many ways, my current life and aims have only been possible due to my time spent working in the food industry, and specifically at the Jazz Factory. My heartfelt thanks go out to all my co-workers who put up with the bumptious younger me.
I already had some experience working in the food industry by this point. My first restaurant job had been as a busser/dishwasher at an Outback Steakhouse in Columbus, GA. I left Columbus soon after I had been promoted to server, but once I got to Huntsville, I immediately got jobs at both a Chili’s and an Olive Garden, hired literally within 10 minutes of walking through the door at each place. While the training at Olive Garden was more appropriate for learning about food and wine, Chili’s had a faster progression to becoming a bartender, and that’s really what I was after at that time in my life – quick access to booze and a closer interaction with guests. So I stuck with Chili’s. I served tables for a few months, trained as a bartender, worked a few months more behind the bar, and left to peddle my new experience elsewhere, preferably somewhere more lucrative and, dare I say, more distinguished than a chain restaurant that specialized in macrobrews and 1001 different types of margarita. The corporate competitions to sell specific items from the menu proved a drain on my soul, and when I caught myself pushing Presidente Ritas on the obviously intoxicated just to get my numbers up, I knew it was time to move on. This is when I found the Jazz Factory.
The Jazz Factory opened my eyes to, among other things, what it meant to have an actual chef working in the kitchen, utilizing fresh, local ingredients before (I knew) it was cool. The regular menu was pretty great, good enough that they were loathe to change it too much from year to year. But what left the deepest impression on me was that they replaced the regular dinner service one Sunday a month for a time with what they called a Wine Dinner: several courses, each paired with a carefully chosen glass of wine, following a menu specially made for the event and often suited to the season. Many restaurants today call this a Tasting Menu, which is usually an addition to the regular menu, but some places still treat it as a separate event. In my humble opinion, the Tasting Menu is the star of haute cuisine. It allows the chef to work with the best ingredients available without having to adhere to their standard selection of dishes. Guests do have the option to request that certain things be left out of the dinner on the basis of allergy or aversion, but the decisions are otherwise left up to the chef. It can remain consistent throughout the season, or it can change every night, or even for every diner. The Tasting Menu is a chef’s playground. If you appreciate the art and skill of talented chefs who love what they do, and if you have the extra money to spend on such an experience, there is no greater opportunity for good food. For an extra bonus, add the wine pairing, too.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I really started travelling in earnest, which for me meant focusing on food as a cultural experience necessary for a well-rounded trip rather than a mere source of fuel for other activities. Nowadays my wife and I try to visit great restaurants of all types wherever we go, even better when we can share the experience with others. A great many of our meals, including some of the most exquisite, have been at a table with the Kindicks, whose companionship over the years has rendered them part of our family. Such bonds are a testament to the power and importance of a meal.
I have visited many fine dining restaurants worth mentioning since my time at the Jazz Factory. A very many more bars and cafes and family-style restaurants are memorable for their charm and authenticity, but there are just too many of these to keep track of, and very few of these have required planning ahead of time. The fine dining restaurants become part of the itinerary, and in some cases part of the reason to make the trip at all. If a restaurant has a Tasting Menu, we order it as a matter of course. Most other restaurants we tend to visit for dinner have a prix fixe, for which you pay a fixed price and select items from the menu for a number of courses. Either way – not to take anything away from the roadside BBQ sandwich or lobster roll – seek out the best restaurants whenever you can and make a meal of it. Take your time. Enjoy the food. Cherish the company. A chef’s passion makes for an unforgettable experience, even when expectations prove untenable. These memories and the stories that adorn them will last a lifetime.
Featured image used with permission of the artist, Yuri Ozaki: www.yuriozaki.com