Jacques Qualin of J&G Steakhouse on Head Cheese, Being an Apprentice, and Daniel Boulud

Jacques Qualin J&G Steakhouse The Phoenician Resort 6000 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale 480-214-8000, jgsteakhousescottsdale.com

See also: -- Matt Pool on Chris Bianco, Andreoli Italian Grocer, and Phoenix as a Food Town -- Chef Kevin Binkley a Finalist for James Beard Award

This is part one of my interview with Jacques Qualin, chef de cuisine at J&G Steakhouse at The Phoenician Resort. Come back Wednesday when Qualin dishes about Lori Hashimoto, Anthony Bourdain, and the difference between French and American cooks.

Warm spring beets, local goat cheese, mache, and lemon oil

Jacques Qualin is not a celebrity chef and, as far as I can tell, has zero interest in being one. Soft-spoken but direct, he portrays none of the look-at-me brashness that seems to be a requirement these days for getting and keeping your mug in the limelight. He's confident, not cocky, exhibiting an economy of words that has little to do with his fluency in English (which is considerable) and everything to do with his work ethic. If there's a French phrase for "get 'er done," Jacques probably uses it often, not that he'd ever sacrifice aesthetics for efficiency. His Asian-inflected, French-inspired food -- a pure reflection of his superstar friend and boss Jean-Georges Vongerichten -- demonstrates everything we admire in Asian, French, and American cooking: quality ingredients, spare composition, and creativity applied to classic technique.

This guy gets it, and it's no wonder. Growing up in the Franche-Comté region of France, he learned cooking at his mother's knee, signing on for an apprenticeship in a hotel kitchen at age 16. He spent the next five years learning his craft in hotel kitchens across France, roving from Alsace in the north to Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur in the south before heading to Paris to work for Michelin-rated chef Michel de Matteis. Qualin spent another year under the tutelage of celebrated chef Claude de Ligne at Taillevent (named the best restaurant in Paris, "if not all of France" by the New York Times), but it was while he was working at the St. James Paris that Qualin got the itch to move to the States. A friend of a friend had worked for Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and described the exciting food scene in New York. Qualin decided he wanted a piece of it and landed a job as line cook at Le Cirque, where he stayed for 18 months. When his work visa was up, he returned to France and spent the next five years (1991-96) as chef de partie at the famed Restaurant La Marée before heading back to Taillevent.

Peekytoe crab cake, avocado, pink grapefruit, ginger

Qualin had met his future wife (a student at Le Cordon Bleu) in 1994, and after they married (one wedding in France, another in the States to satisfy both sets of parents), the couple decided to return to the United States. A chef friend helped Qualin secure a position at



Jean Georges Vongerichten

's first restaurant, and Qualin stayed on to help his friend and mentor open


. In 2003, when he decided he wanted to "do his own thing," he took a position as chef de cuisine at

Le Perigord

, where his revisions of French classics earned him rave reviews. Three and half years later, he opened his own restaurant --

The French Corner

-- in upstate New York, earning four stars (nearly impossible for a restaurant outside the city) from the

New York Times

. When the financial crash hit in 2008, Qualin decided to call it quits. He called his old friend Vongerichten, who was looking for a chef to run a new steakhouse concept in Phoenix. Qualin opened


in 2009 and continues to evolve the menu, maintaining a balance between classic and contemporary, exotic and accessible, sumptuous and affordable. He's not a celebrity chef, but if celebrity were based on talent, not self-aggrandizement, he would be.

Five words to describe you: Hungry. Fair. Energetic. Detailed. Opinionated.

Five words to describe J&G: Sophisticated. Classic. Picturesque. Exceptional. Inviting.

Favorite food smell: Croissants coming out of the oven.

Favorite cookbook and why: Le Guide Culinairefrom Georges Auguste Escoffier. He was a great chef at the turn of the century who changed the way of cooking, which included thinking more lightly. His book was a Bible for many great chefs thereafter.

Ingredient you love to cook with: Cilantro. Love the fragrance of it, and it has a versatile use, even in drinks.

Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil.

Most underrated ingredient: Stocks.

Favorite thing to eat growing up: Head cheese made by my mother.

Favorite thing to eat now: Fresh seafood. Always on the lookout for it.

What was it like to be an apprentice in a hotel kitchen at age 16? Were you yelled at? Did you have things thrown at you?: No, nobody threw things and there was not too much yelling. Working 12 hours or more a day, which I still do now, of course -- not that I remember.

What did you learn from Daniel Boulud?: Daniel is a great chef and friend. He was the first chef I worked with coming to the States; among other things, he taught me the importance of media in this country.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Matt Pool of Matt's Big Breakfast Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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