Some young chefs have all the luck, and Jim Jeffords is one of them. Presently the executive chef of Evening Star Cafe, Jeffords spent four and-a-half years working under one D.C.'s most outstanding chefs, Eric Ziebold, executive chef of CityZen. "He teaches cooks how to cook and how always to be thinking ahead," he explained. " 'You have to be four steps ahead or you will always be a step behind,' was one of his favorites. He gives you recipes plus freedom, and tells you how he wants things to taste."
A native of Georgia, Jeffords can point to earlier culinary influences in his life, perhaps not as formative, but yet one that planted the seeds of his food passion. "I grew up in the very southern end of Georgia," he said, "the agricultural area where there is lots of farming." That was in Moultrie, where his family owned a farm. Young Jeffords helped tend to the corn, soy, and peanuts, and at large family dinners, Jeffords enjoyed his grandmother's pot roast, deviled eggs and peanuts.
But for the business of the culinary world, his grandparents also played another key role. "My grandparents opened a restaurant in Florida the day I was born," he said. "It was very casual, and no one had had any restaurant experience prior to opening it. So I spent a lot of time down there growing up." Cooking for the restaurant was his first professional cooking experience, he adds, and he discovered he really liked the kitchen subculture.
|If you go|
|Evening Star Cafe|
|» Where: 2000 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria|
|» Info: 703-549-5051|
|» Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday|
Later, working as a bartender during his college years, Jeffords decided to go to culinary school. After graduating from high school, Jeffords spent two years working in Montana, before he moved to Vermont to attend the New England Culinary School. After graduation, Jeffords moved to Boston, where chef Chris Parsons hired him to work in his three-star seafood restaurant, Catch.
After only a short stint in Boston, Jeffords moved down to D.C., where as luck would have it, Ziebold took him in as an intern. "I wanted to come further south," he said, "because that is the style of cooking I knew growing up." And as Jeffords recounts, that experience really shaped him as a chef. "I picked up the basic understanding of flavor profiles. Eric has raw talent when creating dishes," he said. "He is big into the simplicity of design, yet creating something very exciting -- nothing ever looked flat."
Capitalizing on his education and on his CityZen experience, Jeffords revels in Evening Star's casual atmosphere and his freedom to infuse the menu with Southern-style eats: shrimp and grits and buttermilk-fried chicken are menu stars. Indeed, Jeffords describes his signature dish as pan-roasted duck breast with hazelnut dirty rice with spring onions and artichokes.
What is your comfort food?
One thing I like to do if it's late, is to open the refrigerator, put salsa on one chip, and sit there and eat that. But other than that, I love to make pasta. I love to make Bolognese and have it at home. ... I like a lot of Italian-influenced foods; I traveled to Italy and biked through wine country.
What has been the greatest influence on your cooking?
Eric Ziebold, on a daily basis, and his seeing everything and telling you things like 'a little more salt,' and showing you how things come together correctly.
Do you have a favorite cookbook?
"Larousse Gastronomique." It is an extremely old, large cookbook, but if you want to reference any type of food item, there is something in that book that uses it. I find inspiration when using it.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Salt. Aside from that, garlic, I love garlic and I like a lot of spices like paprika, cumin and smoked paprika.
What's in your fridge?
I have beef tongue in brine, which my wife hates. Yogurt, I don't do much cooking at home. Grapefruit, V8 juice, and that's about it.
Serve this smooth soup with a simple grilled cheese sandwich or freshly toasted croutons.
2 Tbsps vegetable oil
10 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 onions, peeled and sliced
2 medium leeks, white part only, sliced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
4 tsps dried espelette or other mild dried chili
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbsps red wine vinegar
2 (28-ounce) cans whole plum tomatoes
Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add the oil, and sweat the garlic and onion; do not let the turn color. Once translucent add the leeks and peppers, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until tender. Add the spices, and toast them lightly.
Add the red wine vinegar, and deglaze the skillet, cooking until the liquid cooks off. Add the tomatoes, and cook for 20 minutes. Pour the entire mixture in to a blender, and puree. Strain through a sieve or sifter, and serve.