The Colgate Scene
November 1998
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The food of life

Chef Wendy Jackson spends 15 hours a day in the kitchen to ensure meals are memorable and a trip to the restaurant is more than just dinner out.

by John D. Hubbard
[IMAGE] Wendy Jackson '85 has the pound cake and the lavender-Tupelo honey crème bruleé in the oven and she's working on the sea vegetable salad that will be served with seared scallops.

     There is still an hour before the luncheon crowd will begin to filter into the Restaurant at Organica on the Post Road in Westport, Connecticut, but Jackson has been moving steadily about the kitchen since 7:30 and will maintain the pace until 10:30 p.m.

     "It's easier if you don't stop," says Jackson, who is gathering green olives, garlic, parsley and anchovy paste. "It goes by so quickly, you don't realize you've been here 15 hours."

     Organica opened in May and has been building a reputation ever since. It is owned by a cancer survivor who wanted a place that served healthy food but where her husband could also order a martini. Under the guidance of executive chef Frank Rhodes and his sous chef Wendy Jackson, the restaurant is a place where health food and fine food come together and, according to the menu, "where the purest of ingredients meet culinary skill, experience and artistry."

     Jackson's experience goes back a ways. She grew up in a family where both her grandfathers were marvelous amateur cooks and mealtimes were events. At Colgate, she baked cakes for friends' birthdays and often showed up at away football games with 300 chocolate cookies for the team. She also accepted catering jobs.

     "Cooking was always my hobby," says Wendy, who "did the corporate thing" following graduation. She did it a bit differently, however. Instead of Manhattan, Wendy worked in Martinique with Club Med. By the time she was 28, Jackson was ready to turn her love of cooking into a way of life. She enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont ("I love those rural environments"), and once she had her degree worked in a variety of places -- St. Bart's, the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and Atlanta. The job in Connecticut meant not only being close to family but also a chance for Wendy to further her education.

     "There's always somebody else you can learn from in this business and Frank Rhodes has so much to teach. He's spent 20 years in some of Manhattan's best restaurants."

[IMAGE] The rhythm
"I love the rhythm of the kitchen," says Jackson. The day begins early as she makes a survey of what needs to be done. Rhodes has a large pot of onions on the fire already and Jackson, who has checked the reservation book, knows it will be a busy lunch hour.

     "I was taught to do three things simultaneously," says Jackson as she sniffs a cheese, discovers potatoes that will be part of the crew's breakfast and retrieves a bottle of rice vinegar. "If you aren't doing three tasks at once, you're basically dogging it."

     After an hour or so the prep chef arrives. When he finishes with slices of zucchini, he tackles a basket of pears. The rest of the staff eventually shows up as steam rises from big pots and the grill sizzles. The mood is still light but there isn't a lot of chat.

     "You can't have people joking around when the fires are going." Burns and cuts are occupational hazards Jackson knows well, but she has so far avoided the bulging waistline.

     "During service, when we are putting food out together, there's sort of a rush." There can also be a tremendous amount of pressure. "Originally, I found it very stressful and it took me a long time to sort of calm down."

     The kitchen can also be a macho place. "You can't be a wilting little daisy," says Jackson, who holds her own, a trait she refined during geology field trips.

     More than learning to hold her own, as a geology major Jackson learned to think. "There's a mindset I learned from being in the geology department -- a love and graciousness. I learned it was important to be passionate about something and how to deal with bizarre adversity.

     "One of the reasons Frank hired me was because I have a good liberal arts education. It gives you more perspective on everything and your mind has been trained to think. If you have a knowledge of other cultures, you know something of why the foods are like they are. It helps you relate" -- and not just to various dishes. Kitchens are often multicultural, with an equal diversity in ages and backgrounds. Despite language barriers, Jackson seems able to convey often subtle notions. Concepts such as freshness and organization are taught in a firm but friendly way. Jackson also draws on another lesson learned in geology -- everybody has something to contribute -- and her willingness to learn from anyone on the crew is apparent in the way she listens to those working for her.

[IMAGE] Healthy, not health food
"I love the idea of using the best, cleanest ingredients -- things that haven't been sprayed with pesticides or shot with antibiotics. We're not doing no fat, no salt, no wheat but trying to use organic foods in a balanced, upscale way." It means everything from flying meats in from California to picking raspberries at one of the nearby organic farms.

     The Restaurant at Organica is part of a larger complex that includes a retail shop and holistic arts center, all with an eye toward "individual health and planetary well-being."

     Jackson is making humus as she talks about work. "I love that it's always different and there are no limits to what you can do. There are certain rules, of course, but you can experiment. You create something and it's good or not. The satisfaction comes very quickly."

     Food is a simple, visceral pleasure that Jackson loves -- the smell, the touch -- and enjoys sharing with others. "Most people come to a restaurant to have a happy time, so there's a lot of joy and it's good to contribute to that."

     And what is the recipe for a good chef? "Discipline, endurance and ego balanced with a good shot of humility. You have to have an open mind. You have to not be afraid of food and, if you're going to do something creative and be successful, there has to be passion."

     Lunch is served, but there's a long day still to go. In the kitchen, Wendy Jackson relishes every moment.

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