Chef Profile: Robert Wilson Jenkins

Posted by johngl

Many young people with a talent for music fantasize about coming to Austin, TX to play in a band, make it big, and party. Some hit two out of three, which isn’t bad, but that middle goal is often elusive. Something else is necessary in order to pay the bills.

rwjSuch was the case for this instructor at Central Market’s Cooking School, Chef Robert Jenkins, a fourth-generation Texan. Upon arrival in the “Live Music Capital of the World”, he found it tough to find a job. Eventually, young Robert got a gig.

“I stumbled across a place by U.T. called G.M. Steakhouse,” he says. “It was on the south end of the Guadalupe drag. I walked in and asked if they were looking for any help and the guy behind the counter said that they needed a dishwasher. I asked for an application and he looked under the counter for a while. When he came up he said, ‘We’re out of applications so just fill out this paper bag, dude.’ A couple of days later I was washing dishes.” Earning the necessary creds, he became a line cook and later managed the steakhouse.

Interest in cooking began at an early age, though not for reasons one might think. Chef Robert says, “I have vivid memories of coming home from the grocery store with my Mom and eagerly unpacking…that always feels like Christmas to me, that unpacking of groceries, even to this day.” Lost in childhood thoughts, he continues, “Sometimes, no, most of the time, on Saturday mornings my brother would have me make breakfast while he watched cartoons. I would cook pancakes and bacon, sometimes eggs. If I wanted to watch cartoons with him then I had to work fast. So I would get out the electric skillet and Bisquick and get to work. Even though I was getting stiffed on my cartoon time, deep down I really didn’t mind. There was something nice about making breakfast and having everyone enjoy it.” Who says Saturday morning cartoons aren’t a motivator?

Anyone who enjoys cooking experiences some kind of turning point — that one meal where things seem to click into perspective. For Chef Robert, that point occurred in his freshman year of high school during a unit on medieval life:

I remember being amazed at the lack of table manners during that period in time. Food was typically piled on the table and people just dug in. I thought to myself, “How much fun will this be?” I roasted a huge Turkey (fowl was very common on medieval tables). Two Cornish game hens were baked in pie crusts (later to be found that this was called “en croute”). There were roasted root vegetables and lots of fresh fruit strewn all over.

When it was time to eat my friends and I just dug in, pulling the birds apart and eating mostly with knives and our hands. This dinner was the turning point for me. Even though I did not really understand fine dining or flavor combinations or palate or terminology, from this point on I always looked at food from a different point of view.

Purity of form seems to course through the veins of this chef, student of martial arts, and composer. Composer? Martial Arts? Chef Robert elaborates, “‘Art’ is the key word here; fine arts, culinary arts, martial arts. I approach every thing that I do from an artists standpoint. Otherwise it would just become boring. That happens sometimes and I have to re-evaluate what I am doing and probe a little deeper to find the real meaning in the task.”

Having probed deeply into music, Chef Robert is an Honors graduate from UT’s College of Fine Arts with a degree in music composition. He latest work, entitled Res Gestae (Latin for “things accomplished”), was released in July, 2008.

He also studies martial arts in the form Tao Wu Hsian Hua (the way of infinite transformation) at Blankenship Martial Arts. In addition to physical training, there is a focus on the mind/body connection — the Chi. I asked Chef if the training helped in his work. He answered, “The martial arts does help my kitchen skills but not in the way you might think. I constantly apply the principles of Tai Chi and Chi Kung while I work: relax, move from the center of your body, breathe. By doing this, I can move more fluidly around the kitchen while being completely relaxed.”

Even his custom-made knives reflect the deep-rooted love of craft. They are hand forged, made by Shinichi Watanabe in Japan. The chef says, “He is an excellent artist. I just love his personality, dedication to his art, and superb craftsmanship. He is very old school, too.” Several hunting knifes are currently on order due to the chef’s interest in personally dispatching any meat sources from which he eats.

His favorite food to cook is cassoulet, yet he only makes it once a year or so, just to keep it special. Never one to take the easy route, he makes everything from scratch, even the sausage. He speaks thoughtfully, “My Mother went to France some years back and traveled the Languedoc. She brought me back a cassole from Pottery Not [pronounced “No”], one of the oldest cassole producing families in the entire region. That cassole is my most prized piece of kitchen equipment. Well, that and my knives.” Chef Robert was feeling generous and agreed to share his special recipe for cassoulet.

The chef has put in his dues at lots of local dining establishments. In the late 80s he made pastries at Chez Fred. In the early 90s, he worked at Martin Brother’s Café when they were located in the original Whole Foods. He worked at City Grill in the mid 90s. Then moved to Basil’s and stayed there for about five years learning butchery from Chance Miller whom he values as one of the best in town. While at Basil’s, he also worked with Robert Brady and Terri Wilson (who went on to open Aquarelle). Prior to his college graduation, he put in a brief stint at Aquarelle, too. Chef says, “Working with Robert, Terri, and Jacques Richard was incredible. I just love their style, vision, and dedication. Even though my time there was short I still use everything I learned there.” Aquarelle is his hands-down favorite restaurant in Austin, so much so that he wrote a piece for string orchestra and titled it after them.

breadmanIn his current post, Chef Robert is part entertainer and part cooking instructor. This position allows him to explore the variety of inputs he craves saying “I am never trapped in a box. It is a great place for me to expand my knowledge in a truly comprehensive way.” During his classes, he has this freewheeling delivery style which makes classes more like dinner theater than cooking school. However, as a staff instructor, he also gets the opportunity to work with some of the top chefs in the world: Roland Messnier (White House pastry chef through four administrations), Nick Malgieri (pastry chef, author, teacher), Alice Medrich (dessert maven), Efisio Farris (owner of Arcodoro & Pomodoro Ristoranti Italiani on Routh Street, Dallas), Peter Reinhart (baker extraordinaire), Raghavan Iyer (Indian food), and Virginia Willis (cook, teacher, author, and culinary television producer) just to name a few. Robert muses, “You couldn’t ask for a better faculty.”

So what’s next for this quiet and thoughtful man? Chef Robert and co-worker Nancy Buchanan have recently embarked upon a new culinary journey via a business venture called, simply, Soirée. Their emphasis is on elegant dining for groups ranging from 8-15 and will allow the hosts the time to spend with their guests. Contact soireetx@gmail.com for details and pricing.

Cassoulet

Recipe courtesy of Chef Robert Wilson Jenkins

Ingredients:
1 lb. Pork Butt, boned and reserving bone for the beans
1 large Yellow Onion, quartered
½ bunch (5- 10 large sprigs) Fresh Thyme
Salt and Pepper
4 cups small White Beans (Great Northern or Flageolet), cleaned and picked through
½ lb. Fresh Pork Rind, cubed
1 large Yellow Onion
1 Tbsp Duck Fat
1 lb. ground pork
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh Thyme
1 scant Tbsp. Black Truffle Salt (or plain sea salt)
1 large Yellow Onion, quartered
10-14 cloves Fresh Garlic
Confit of 1 whole duck (or 4 whole duck legs confit)
½ tsp ground Nutmeg

Method:

For the Pork:

Preheat oven to 200°. Place the pork in an oven proof casserole, dutch oven, or earthenware pot with lid. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and arrange the onion and thyme around the meat. Cover and bake until the meat is fork tender, about 3 hours or more. When the meat is done remove it from the dish and set aside to cool. Once cooled tear the meat apart into bite-sized pieces and reserve.

For the Beans:

In a large pot sauté the pork rind with the onion, stirring frequently, until the fat is rendered and the skin is crispy, about 20 minutes. Add the beans, reserved pork bone, and 4 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer and cook the beans until they are tender, about 1 ½ hours. Season the beans with salt and let them cool. When the beans are cool remove the bone and as much onion as you can.

For the Sausage:

Mix the pork, thyme, and truffle salt together and form the mixture into small patties.

Put the garlic, onion, and ½ cup water into a blender and purée until a smooth paste forms.

Heat the duck fat in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sausage patties and brown on both sides. Pour in the onion/garlic paste and simmer for another 10 minutes or so, turning the sausages once or twice.

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 350°. Assemble the cassoulet in layers: Using a slotted spoon transfer about 1/3 of the beans to a Cassole, Dutch oven, or other wide mouth dish. Layer half of the meat over the beans. Top this layer of meat with another layer of beans and repeat, ending with a layer of beans. Season with nutmeg and add just enough of the bean liquid to cover. Bake the cassoulet, uncovered, until it begins to simmer and form a crust, about 1 hour.

Reduce heat to 250° and cook for 3 hours more. Check the cassoulet every hour and break the crust only if it has formed. If the cassoulet appears dry add just enough bean liquid to meet the top of the crust.

Remove the cassoulet from the oven. Allow it to cool, cover it with foil, and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350°. Remove the cassoulet from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature for at least 45 minutes. Bake the cassoulet for 1 hour. When it begins to simmer break the crust and add more bean liquid if necessary. Reduce oven to 250° and bake the cassoulet for 3 more hours, breaking the crust as needed and adding reserved liquid or water as needed to keep the cassoulet moist. After 3 hours remove the cassoulet from the oven and allow it to rest for 20 minutes. Serve the cassoulet from the pot, breaking the crust at the table.

Serves 6-8

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About johngl

A bit of a wildman, John hails from the Midwest: A land of corn, cows, pigs, and a host of other healthfully meaty pursuits. Born on a dark and stormy night in late Fall, John grew up as the son of a meat cutter. There was always plenty of meat at hand. While not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, his family certainly ate well. According to his father, that was the whole point.

4 thoughts on “Chef Profile: Robert Wilson Jenkins

  1. Pingback: the art of war

  2. I got your recipe called “A Baker’s Secret for Bread Machines,” from All Recipes.com over a yr. ago. I have to tell you that it is the best bread ever!

    My family, friends and relatives also rave about it.

    You were so, so right in advising to ignore the machines directions as they produce a not worth making loaf of bread.

    Thank you so much for this free and fantastic recipe! Only one problem…..
    It falls apart when I use it for sandwiches, toasted or not.
    What can I do about it? I use only the best ingredients….Any suggestions?

    Claire Hinch

  3. If you ever get a chance to attend one of Robert’s classes, jump on it! If you ever get a chance to sample his cooking, act like a pit bull protecting a bone – eat fast, eat as much as possible, and growl if anyone looks like they’re about to take it away from you.

  4. What a great story! I love to hear biographies of how people got to where they are now. How lucky to have worked in some nice places!

    Thanks for sharing!

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