For most chefs, running a kitchen is a full-time job in its own right. But Employees Only chef Julia Jaksic also finds the time to run a rather, avant-garde dinner club as well. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, she went on to work her way through Chicago’s restaurants before moving to New York’s SoHo Grand.
Her father, a butcher in the Meatpacking District during the 70’s, taught Julia how to butcher a pig and make her sausages. With a strong Eastern European heritage, Julia brings hearty food into the spotlight at Employees Only with such dishes as a Serbian charcuterie platter and a late night menu that includes everthing from bacon-wrapped lamb chops with salsa verde to truffled grilled cheese.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I never really wanted to be anything-I just wanted to get out of Milwaukee.
What was your first job in food? Where did you work before coming to Employees Only?
I worked in my dad’s butcher shop that specialized in deer processing during the two week hunting period for deer. I worked in several places in Chicago where I went to school, and then I worked for three years here at the SoHo Grand. For a while, I focused on food styling and did some editorial shoots of food for Gourmet, Food & Wine, etc. I also did a photo shoot for Kraft. After that I had a friend who was opening up Employees Only and needed a sous chef, so I got the job.
Each dinner for your Dinner Club has many a unique theme – what have some of the themes in the past been? Any ideas for future dinners?
We’re thinking of doing a Turn of the Century English picnic, with badminton and everything. In the past we’ve done 1930’s high society – black and white, “Arabian Nights”…we did an 1880’s Parisian sort of Opium Den type party, a Cuban Party. It’s a wonderful combination of fashion, food and culture because we really go all out with these dinners, everyone has to dress up for the time period, and I get to cook food that I never worked with before.
As the executive chef for Employees Only, where do you find the time to host your NYC Dinner Club?
It’s a passion, so I make the time. Even when I’m on the train to and from work I’ll read books all about food history and fashion. I love learning about what people ate and how they came to create certain foods. Somehow, someone decided to grind wheat into flour and make a cake from it – I find that fascinating.
What inspired you to hold a Fearless Eating event at Whole Foods to raise money for NEDA (National Eating Disorder Awareness)?
I was approached by this nutritionist to help with this fundraiser, but it was also very personal too. I’ve had friends with eating disorders, and I’m tired of all of these detox diets – just EAT. People would always ask me which foods I thought were healthier or had less calories. The point of eating is to enjoy the food, and I wanted to express that to people.
Have any experiences or travels of yours influenced the vastly European flavor of the Employees Only menu?
My father is a butcher from Croatia, and my grandmother was the type that would get up at 6 AM and just start cooking. Where I grew up in Milwaukee there was a small but very strong Croatian community, and every night we would have, you know, 4 to 5 hour dinners thanks to my father and grandmother. Now Eastern European food is pretty peasant-y and not very formal looking. However, I went to school at Le Cordon Bleu so I bring a French presentation to the dishes. I also love braising meats. It also helps that my partners are from Serbia, Bosnia, and Greece.
How has Employees Only changed since you first started working there in 2004?
It was weird to come in as a sous chef and return after two years at Smith & Mills as the executive chef. It was challenging to come back with new eyes and find my place. If anything, there are definitely more Eastern European dishes on the menu, and I’m dealing with a new staff that has a lot of new, great ideas.
Your late night menu at Employees Only is so extensive, it’s practically a dinner menu in itself. What compelled you to provide such variety at so late an hour?…
Your late night menu at Employees Only is so extensive it’s practically a dinner menu in itself. What compelled you to provide such variety at so late an hour?
The whole idea of Employees Only is that restaurant workers come here – this is their happy hour, and the kitchen is busy until 4AM when we close. With that in mind, we might as well go for it and serve a full menu, because I can tell you that after sweating in the kitchen all night, I want nothing more than a cheeseburger. Not only that, we want to balance the menu, and there’s often a huge food rush at 3 AM; people are ordering burgers and steaks and truffled grilled cheese. The late night crowd is so varied and interesting, made up of industry workers, locals…it’s great.
Which is your favorite dish on the menu at Employees Only?
It’s kind of like asking me what I want to wear today. It depends on my mood, but they’re all my little creations so of course I’m going to love them all.
Which is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
My dishes are like children: I love them all!
Which culinary trend do you embrace?
I think these “trends” inspire people to do their own thing, and to each his own. I like casual, fun, good food, but I’ve also been to these places that work with micro gastronomy and I think it’s fantastic.
Which culinary trend do you wish would just die already?
I really don’t think I have an opinion on that. I love how some things are made up and others are borrowed from other cultures. There are some things in other parts of the world that we haven’t even thought about doing, and I think it’s important to remain open-minded.
Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
Not really – I’m content with staying here, and I’m not sure if I want to open up my own restaurant. I don’t like to plan ahead; I live in the moment and do my thing well.
Address: 510 Hudson Street btwn. Christopher and W. 10th Streets
Phone: (212) 242-3021
nyc dinner club
Until we eat again,
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