Like many kids, Jesse Vega dreamed of being an astronaut when he grew up. Now the thought makes him shudder. “Space scares the hell out of me,” says Vega, who joined Central Bistro & Bar as a line cook in 2013 and took over as executive chef in November. “I cannot see myself being anything other than a chef.” While Vega takes his job seriously, he nonetheless brings an element of playfulness to the kitchen. But the good things coming out of Central Bistro’s kitchen — including brunch, which used to be its own joke in the food industry — are no laughing matter. Keep reading for more from Vega.
Westword: Traditionally, diners love brunch and chefs hate it. Is that changing now, and if so, why?
Jesse Vega: That was the case, and I believe it is changing. Brunch is an “anything goes” type of meal. This is a meal period where people like to eat things they normally don’t during the work week. You don’t usually order a Bloody Mary for lunch Monday to Friday, even though you may want to. Basically, people don’t typically indulge for lunch. Brunch is the time when people are more open to indulging and trying anything. That allows us chefs an opportunity to explore how far we can go. When it comes to my kitchen, we’re a group of oversized children who are allowed to use the stove, and we like to have fun with it.
Cooking brunch allows us to create something new and innovative from a usually recognizable dish.
When you took over brunch at Central Bistro & Bar, you switched up the menu. What do you have in store for Central now that you’re executive chef?
Continuing the freestyle approach to our food, highlighting small plates, and being a go-to destination spot in this fast-growing city.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I had a typical upbringing, meaning I stayed in the kitchen with both my grandmother and mother while they cooked. I definitely observed and learned a lot from watching them. However, I didn’t feel a strong desire to cook professionally until my sixteenth birthday, when my parents took me to La Plage and I was given a tour of the kitchen. As soon as I was exposed to a “real” kitchen — not at home, not on TV — that was it. I started working at that very kitchen that year. I was hooked.
What’s your earliest food memory?
I clearly remember being around both my grandmother and mother while they were cooking. However, my first really delicious, really concrete food memory would have to be eating a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich on an everything bagel. It was like sensory overload. The crispy bacon, the rich and melted cheese, the bold taste of an everything bagel; it’s hard to compete.
How long have you been in the business?
I’ve been in the business for fourteen years. I started when I was sixteen years old.
What’s a career highlight?
A career highlight would have to be becoming an executive chef by 21 and opening a restaurant with my boss in Philadelphia that same year. It was a lot of work, but such an accomplishment.
Did you have a mentor, and what did that person teach you that still rings true today?
Daniel Kennedy was my mentor. He taught me to lead by example, and I think about that every day.
Do you have a signature dish, or something you’ve made throughout the years, even if you’re not publicly known for it?
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
Cauliflower flan. I had this dish at Marc Vetri’s restaurant, and it was the best thing I had ever eaten! However, when I attempted it, it was a huge flop. I clearly remember my boss spitting it out as soon as he put it in his mouth.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
Opening up my old restaurant, Azul Cantina. This involved everything from demolition, design and permits to dealing with the health department. It was insane, to say the least. But it was an amazing experience that taught me not to take any restaurant for granted. There is so much that goes into it that the average person doesn’t see when they come in and dine. This taught me every aspect of opening and operating a brand-new restaurant.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food:
Guilty pleasure is Taco Bell. Give me a 7-Layer Burrito, quesadilla or Crunchwrap Supreme. Hard to resist.
Where do you eat on a day off?
I don’t go out to eat often, but when I do, my fiancée and I enjoy going to Jax Fish House for happy hour and getting our oyster fix.
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
Definitely skate cheeks. I’ve been cooking with skate wing for a while now and just featured it on our newest dinner menu. But I just found out about skate cheeks, and I can’t wait to start cooking with it!
One ingredient you wish would disappear:
I cannot eat those oversized drumsticks when I eat wings. All that cartilage just freaks me out, and then I can’t eat chicken for weeks.
Do you ever cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
When I cook at home, I enjoy making cheesy bean dip for my fiancée. When she cooks for me, she cooks my favorite meal, which is breaded chicken cutlets with rice, beans and tostones, with a little ketchup and mayo on the side.
Best tip for a home cook:
When you’re cooking at home, keep in mind that recipes are guidelines and inspiration. You’re allowed to stray from them. Cook freely, break rules, have fun and always remember to taste as you go along.
Central Bistro & Bar is located at 1691 Central Street; for more information, call 303-477-4582 or go to centralbistrobar.com.