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Rathbun Chef Jennifer Newbold on the Rules of the Kitchen, Her Mussels and the Dallas Palate

Jennifer Newbold has been the chef at Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen for about six months now. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she grew up eating food from her family farm and would like to see an easier way to bring the farm to the table here. She came to Dallas via St. Loius and San Diego, and she makes a strong case on why you should try her mussels.

We sat down with Newbold for this week's interview.

When did you first become interested in cooking? My grandpa passed away before I was born, but he was a chef. My father cooked a lot too, and growing up in Tacoma, Washington, we would go hunting and fishing regularly. I remember always being in the kitchen with my dad. We'd go pick chanterelles and make a big batch of chanterelle soup. And we always had gardens. We didn't have a lot of money, so we grew a lot of our own foods.

And at a young age I remember going to the grocery store with my mother and she would read the labels on everything to see where it came from.

That was progressive of her. Is she a hippie? Yeah, she's a hippie.

What made you decide to become a chef? I really didn't know what I wanted to do until I fell in love with a military man at a young age and realized I needed to find a job. It just kind of fell in my lap, and I realized it was something I had a passion for. And it just kept going from there. I'm self-taught. I learned from the different chefs I've worked with.

What was your first job in a restaurant? In a huge café and coffee shop in Spokane, Washington. Then I needed a second job, so I started working at Mizuna, which is an all-vegetarian, gourmet five-star restaurant that's been featured in Gourmet magazine. That was where I really got my true passion for cooking. I owe it all to the first chef I worked for there. She was amazing and taught me so much.

Where else did you work? Well, we moved around a lot since my husband is in the military. I worked at the St. Louis Fish Market in St. Louis, then in San Diego for four years at Blue Point Coastal Cuisine. Then, we moved here and I worked at Jasper's in Plano before I moved over here (to Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen).

After moving around so much, what have you learned about gaining the respect of the kitchen staff at a new restaurant? By coming in and not being a dictator right off. They know you're going to make changes, they expect that. But, you have to pick your battles. I may have 100 things I want to change, but I can't do that right off because everyone would freak out. And, I really just try to stay positive because this business can really bring you down.

 

Do you have any rules in your kitchen? Teamwork. We all have to work as a team. I'm not a title-driven person and I try to keep everyone in the kitchen on the same level. That way I know we're all there to help each other. If I notice somebody is trying to push their weight a little more I'll put a stop to it right then and there because there are only so many chefs in a kitchen. If there are too many people wearing too many hats it gets crazy.

What do you think about the Dallas food scene? I'm actually often surprised. When I first started working in Plano, I'd put out these specials and people just weren't getting it. I was so surprised. I thought moving here to this big metropolitan city I was going to have no trouble with serving anything. But I just keep putting it out there, try to educate our servers, and I literally just push it on people. Just try it!

Like what? Give an example of something you have a hard time selling. Things like mussels. They are one of the best appetizers on our menu. I should be selling out of those every night. And I think people are just probably unfamiliar with them. So, I run them as specials and just try to get them in front of people.

Why should we eat your mussels? Our mussels are amazing! I get them from Carlsbad, California, from this small aqua farm started by an 84-year-old fisherman. These mussels are huge, the meat inside is almost as big as the shell. And we sauté them with a Texas beer and some butter. Then I make a homemade chorizo and finish it with tomatoes and cilantro. They have a sweet and little briny sea taste. The broth comes out amazing and we serve it with a crusty grilled baguette.

Do you think the Dallas food scene is changing at all? Overall, I don't get too discouraged with Dallas diners. I think they're pretty forward. Food has become so much bigger than it use to be because of reality shows. The con is that everyone thinks it's cool to be a chef now.

What are the pros from the rise in popularity of chefs due to reality TV? For some people it's an inside look at how much work goes into it. Maybe as a diner they'll be a little more reserved. For a lot of people, also, it puts them on the map -- it's been awesome for some chefs.

And the Dallas locavore movement? It's vitally important and I think we could be more educated here. Working with purveyors sometimes I get a little discouraged ... they want to promote local and I try to buy local, but I feel like there's a little gap in communication sometimes and that's frustrating. Coming here new, it was hard not knowing the local farms and who to call for cheeses. But, it's all on me. If I want to do it then I'm going to have to get on the phone.

 

How realistic is it for you to get your produce locally every day? In a perfect world I would go pick out my produce every day by myself. But that's not realistic for me. It's not possible. I live in Rockwall and I work 13 hours a day.

What's been your experience with local food movements in other cities? In San Diego they had a local farmer's market program and it was one of the best restaurant programs. They would pick out produce at the farmer's market, things they thought I might like. Then, they pull up to the restaurant and open up their truck. I could taste anything and would buy my specialty produce from them. From that they eventually created a system where I could order specific things. They'd pick it up for me and bring it to my restaurant.

Collect all the goods and bring the market to the buyer. That's a great idea. It makes our jobs (as chefs) that much easier. And even though we're a small restaurant, we have so many different purveyors. In other restaurants, I worked with maybe five or six, now here I'm working with so many because I might get one cheese from this person and another from this one. Same with meat and produce.

What are some of your favorite local restaurants? Well, we live in Rockwall and go to Zanata's a lot. We love their wood fired pizzas and half-price bottle of wine specials.

What do you like about working at this particular restaurant? The size -- it's an intimate restaurant. It's small enough that Thursday through Saturday nights I can work as a front-of-the-house manager, which allows me to do table calls, bus tables, run food and talk to people.

How much do you work with Kent? He comes in here often and any time I want to do a menu change, even though I know I can do something without him trying it, I still always like him to do a tasting. He works with me on things like that.

Is he a good mentor? He is. He really is. As chefs we all have our own visions and things we want to do and different styles. And he and I definitely have some style differences, but not in a way that we clash. If I'm in a rut with a dish or something and I just can't complete it, he'll check it out and always has a great suggestion.

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