Jason Czaja, the 32-year-old executive chef at Shinsei, wasn't planning to make food his life, but it certainly seems to be life's plan for him. He was studying music performance at the University of Iowa, when he, as Czaja puts it, "unknowingly started my career." He was working at a restaurant "for reasons no more noble than beer money," he explains.
"The kitchen never hired dishwashers, so each service, the cooks would draw straws to see who would be sharing time in the pit. My first night having to take a turn there was, in retrospect, one of my first sort of 'ah ha' moments with the business. Wash, rinse, repeat, if you know what I mean. Making order out of chaos. That made sense to me."
So, a few years later, he decided to leave the music thing behind (professionally any way) and pursue a career in food. "I sold all of my gear, left school and started cooking for a living." He learned what he calls "the physical part of cooking" while in Iowa and then moved to New York "where I began to hone my technique." Then he worked for six years with PB&J restaurants in Kansas City.
"That really helped define me as a person, a cook and a businessman," he says. He did a short stint in Memphis after that which he says he is "still a little bitter about" though he didn't reveal why. Following that, PB&J's corporate chef, Marc Valiani, hired Czaja "into the Yia Yia's family of restaurants, and almost immediately he and his wife, Kaymie, took me under their wing and have become family...which eventually led me to Dallas and Shinsei."
Not a bad place to land, especially since Czaja is drawn to Japanese food: "The cleanliness. The regionality of the cuisine. The no-bullshit approach to how they handle food." Plus, Shinsei is a hopping place to be these days. Even on the Tuesday night following Valentine's Day the place is packed. Every table is full and a number of people sit waiting for tables.
The décor is modern, the volume is loud, and the staff is efficient. Empty plates didn't last a minute in front of us and I don't think our water glasses were ever empty. The food is delicious -- edamame, pot stickers and a selection of sushi, including Tracy's Special Roll (which was too spicy for my blood) filled the table. And the bread pudding dessert was stellar -- and I don't even like bread pudding.
Each dish is presented simply and neatly. Not surprising perhaps, there is a beauty and grace to the food and the presentation that aligns neatly with the Japanese aesthetic. But the only calm thing about Shinsei is the plated food. The rest of the place is buzzing.
But Czaja seems at home in Shinsei's fast pace and has no plans to leave anytime soon. As for what he does imagine his future holding, well, he jokes, "[I see myself] on a pile of money surrounded by many beautiful women...Honestly, at 32, I'm still in the process of growing into myself, so I can't necessarily say exactly who I will be in five years, or where that will lead me. I do know I'll be making great food; that portion of me is an absolute."
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Another absolute Czaja believes in is everyone knowing how to cook. At least a little bit. "In my soul, I really believe that it is important, more so than the obvious physical need for food. I often hear people refer to music as the 'universal language.' I believe that food [is the universal language]. To be able to appreciate food, one must understand what that food is -- where it came from, how it has to be handled, and the journey it's undergone, if you will."
Czaja's love of food is absolute too. There is not even one food he refuses to eat, in fact. "There are definitely foods I prefer more than others," he explains. "But nothing that I WILL NOT eat. At least I haven't encountered one yet. On preference, I'm not a huge fan of raisins, ever since I was little. As I've grown older, I've definitely learned to appreciate them more. I love drinking an Amarone though. Funny, no?"
As you might expect, even Czaja's idea of a perfect day has to do with food, albeit not particularly fancy food. If it's spring or summer, he says, it's all about "baseball. The park with my dog. A cold beer. A 'real' hotdog. My family is straight Chicago. Sorry...but the jalapeño is not the spice of life. It's a sport pepper. And celery salt. Tomatoes for breakfast, lunch,and dinner. The hot dog was just a snack. All of those things and music. Live, recorded, it doesn't matter. Everything I do is moved by music, and my taste in music that day is determined by what I'm doing and how I feel." As for the fall and winter, fill in Hawkeye football, soup, sledding, red wine and anything braised. And, of course, plenty of music -- always.
What Czaja doesn't have any real interest in -- ever -- is the mayhem that is food TV, but he would still like people to know more about chefs in real life. "[I'd like them to know that] chefs are people too! Honestly, we're not omnipotent (at least not all of the time); certainly not omniscient; and the bulk of us won't be curing cancer or developing a longer lasting iPhone battery. (Please notice I said the bulk, not all of us.) When we have the privilege of being invited into your home for a meal that you've prepared, hopefully with love, don't announce that 'you're no chef, but you hope I like it.' I love just about anything that someone else took the time to make for me. And, a little secret, we, occasionally, overcook meat a little bit too...."