On Mother’s Day, we gave a collective shout-out to the moms in our lives. But mothers aren’t the only ones who help us reach our potential. Last week I wrote about the impact that well-known chef Max MacKissock had on Joshua Bitz, who worked with MacKissock for seven years and later went on to open Meadowlark Kitchen.
This week I’m talking to Dana Rodriguez, chef/co-owner of the wildly popular Work & Class. But long before Work & Class, long before Rodriguez was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest, she spent years learning from one of our city’s best: Jennifer Jasinski, executive chef/owner of Rioja, Euclid Hall, Bistro Vendome and Stoic & Genuine, and a James Beard Best Chef Southwest award winner, to boot. Excerpts of conversations with both chefs, edited for length and clarity, follow.
Westword: At what point in your career did you meet Jennifer Jasinski?
Dana Rodriguez: I met her in 1999.
When and where did you meet?
Rodriguez: That was at Panzano. I was a prep cook and working in pastry.… Jen [then executive chef] took me under her wing and taught me everything — prepping, pasta, grill — and eventually I became the sous-chef. I said “no” two times [to the promotion] because I didn’t feel I was ready.
What did you do after that?
Rodriguez: For seven years at Rioja, I ran the line…. Then the chef at Bistro Vendome left, and I asked if I could take that position. I needed another challenge. I always want to challenge myself. I thought, a Mexican chef for a French restaurant — that’s a little different! I wanted to go for it. I got the chef job at Bistro Vendome and stayed for two years, and then I decided to open Work & Class.
What was that like, parting ways with Jasinski?
Rodriguez: It was a very good decision but a very sad decision. It was hard to talk to Jen when I was leaving. She was my mentor, like my mom. I was with her for seventeen years.
What did she teach you?
Rodriguez: She taught me more than food. She taught me how to run a restaurant, how to treat employees, how to do the numbers. She shaped me to become a restaurant owner.
Jennifer, you’ve had a lot of cooks under you. What was it about Dana that made her stand out?
Jennifer Jasinski: When I first met her at Panzano, she was quiet and shy (hard to believe), but I noticed her hunger to learn, and her work ethic was something special.
Did you think of yourself as a mentor at the time?
Jasinski: Yes. I have for a long time now considered myself a mentor. I love teaching.
In what ways did you help/encourage her?
Jasinski: I encouraged her by pushing her outside her comfort zone…. She was doing pastry when we first met. I eventually taught her how to do every station in Panzano’s kitchen. Also, it took a while, but when I did eventually promote her to sous-chef, she was really nervous about telling other people what to do, so that was hard to get her to learn or get comfortable with giving direction and following up on orders.
Was there one specific lesson you tried to impart?
Jasinski: I tried to impart in her that people are the hardest thing to manage. It’s not hard to cook. It’s hard to get people to cook how you want, the way you want, and to come out the same.
Do you consider Wolfgang Puck your mentor?
What did his mentorship mean for your own career?
Jasinski: His mentorship meant so much. I watched how he was with customers, how he worked a room. How he made people whatever they asked for, even if it wasn’t on the menu. I learned so much.
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Was there one lesson/technique/motto etc. he taught you that still informs your approach to cooking?
Jasinski: He taught us all (who worked for him) that the customer was the reason we were cooking, not for him. He also taught me to buy and expect the best. And not to be cheap, that customers would notice if you were cheap.