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Albuquerque The Interview: Jennifer James, Chef

By Tracy Ziemer
May 2007

With her critically acclaimed restaurants, Jennifer James Contemporary Cuisinie and Graze, James cultivated a loyal following for her modern Southwestern fare, like chickpea fires, ancho chile barbeque cpork ribs, and deviled eggs with jalapeno relish. As she embarks on her next restaurant, she weights in on cooking, the Albuquerque dining scene, and the simple pleasure of hot dogs.

ATM: What have you been working on since you left Graze last fall?
James: “I’ve spent a few months on sabbatical just relaxing, traveling and eating. Now I’m looking for a space for another restaurant. I’m a little picky. I want it to be just right.”

ATM: What are you looking for in a space?
James: “The last few years I’ve gotten more comfortable with my food, and I want a space that’s small and intimate and more home-like. I’m flexible in terms of the location, but I’m over the Nob Hill area. There, you ahve to cater more towards the university and nightlife. I like Edo—East of Downtown—and the area just west of downtown. I also like the Old Town country club area, and maybe the Heights. I want the restaurant to fit in with the community so it will have a more neighborhood feel.”

ATM: Will you be working with your sister, Kelly Burton, or your cousin and business partner Michael Chesley again?
James: “My cousin and I parted ways. I’ll be doing this restaurant with my sister and another partner, who’s also a chef.”

ATM: What is your restaurant vision:
James: “A homey atmosphere where there’s a level of comfort with the decor, atmosphere and food. I’ve always thought of my food as simple and traditional—that’s not what other people think. Someone said to me the other day that my food is ‘innovatively traditional.’ I like that. I rely a lot on fresh food and bright flavors. Having grown up in teh Midwest, where my parents were farmers, I’m drawn to freshness in food.”

ATM: Interesting. How does growing up in Illinois prepare you for cooking in Albuquerque?
James: “I’ve met a lot of farmers here and have sourced out ingredients and wines from smaller owners who are passionate about what they do. It’s not about volume for them, it’s about quality. I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of good people here—Cecilia McCord from Socorro and Eli Burg from the South Valley have all these fresh vegetables, and it’s just amazing. Albuquerque has a small-town mentality, and I mean that in a good way.”

ATM: Do you have any favorite regional ingredients?
James: “I’m really a chile-head now. I’m turned on by bright flavors—fresh herbs, a hint of citrus, a little chile there, a little vinegar there. That’s how I like to cook. I like food that’s very fresh and alive.

ATM: What did you learn when working at Chef du Jour and Le Cafe Miche that shaped your cooking and restaurant philosophy?
James: “At Chef du Jour, Connie [Allgood, the owner] taught me through other chefs. She would say, ‘Who are the best Mexican chefs in the nation?’ and we’d go through that genre and find the recipes of Rick Bayless and others and I’d make them. So from other chefs’ food I’ve learned all about flavor combinations and letting the ingredients in food stand out. In terms of Cafe Miche—I’m actually doing some consulting for Claus [Hjortkjaer, owner] right now—he has the hospitality down. The customers there come back over and over again. They feel like they belong there.”

ATM: From where do you draw inspiration?
James: “Definitely by eating out and reading lots of food magazines and cookbooks. The other day I made a celery marmalade to go with a cheese course, and Claus said, ‘Where did you come up with that?’ I had to have read it somewhere and thought it sounded really good to try. I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago and had frog legs, and now I have a vision for fried frog legs with a Tabasco gravy cream sauce. One of the best things a chef can do is eat other places, just to look at an ingredient in a different way.”

ATM: What are some of your favorite places to eat in Albuquerque?
James: “I’ve been doing a lot of cooking at home, but I just ate at Chef du Jour a little while ago. It’s so affordable and the food is awesome. I go to Vivace a lot for a good bowl of pasta, or Gruet for a steak.”

ATM: You say you cook at home a lot. What would someone be surprised to find your refrigerator or pantry?
James: “My guilty pleasure is definitely potato chips. I’m a little bit of a freak about them. And hot dogs.”

ATM: Hot dogs—really?
James: “Yeah. I went to Super Duper Weenie, this place on the East Coast run by a Culinary Institute of America graduate, and he has just a great hot dog stand. Claus and I joke about buying a hot dog cart and hamburger stand. People are looking for that.”

ATM: Why stay in Albuquerque when you can cook anywhere?
James: “I’m in love with the sky and the moutnains and love having sun. It’s also very nice to be part of a blooming phenomenon. I could go to Portland or Chicago, but the food scene there is already established and rocking. I want to be on the edge of something that can happen and is happening. Albuquerque is getting there, and I like being part of that. There’s a good mix of chefs in Albuquerque.”

ATM: Do you all get along in the local chef community?
James: “We’re competitive, but we also get along. We’re all just so busy that we don’t have time to get togehter and talk shop and share recipes. People don’t really understand that when you’re in a restaurant, you’re working all the time, and then you just follapse at home at the end of the day.”

ATM: And eat hot dogs.
James: “That’s right! And eat hot dogs.”

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