Interview: chef Jason Fox (Commonwealth)

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Chef San Francisco

Jason Fox has been on an upward trajectory in the past several years. He went from chef de cuisine at Scott Howard Restaurant to executive chef of Bar Tartine before joining forces with Anthony Myint, Ian Muntzert and Xelina Leyba on Commonwealth, a lauded seasonal restaurant with charitable leanings in San Francisco’s Mission district. $10 from every $65 tasting menu goes to local non-profits, while diners get to enjoy dishes like rabbit cassoulet, blood orange sorbet, and peanut butter semifreddo. We spoke with Fox on April 15 at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, and he shared insights that hint at how he’s cultivated culinary success.

Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?

I did other careers. I didn’t go to culinary school. I cooked throughout college and high school. I tried to do some other respectable things before I got back into cooking.

Like what?

I did editing for an environmental research company. I had a couple of other jobs like that before, then just kind of got bored with it, got back into cooking.

What’s the first dish that you ever remember cooking, and how did it turn out?

I cooked a lot out of “The Joy of Cooking” in high school. I remember making pies and pretty much cooked through that for awhile. That was a little bit of an early Bible. Then I ended up cooking a lot of Asian food when I was younger. This was when I was 13, 14, 15. And then from there I kind of took off to other things.

Where did you grow up?

Marlboro, New Jersey.

What brought you to San Francisco?

I’ve been here about 17 years, graduated from college. My older brother was living here, used to come up and visit him all the time back when I would go see shows and do fun things and just decided to move out here.

How did the opportunity come about at Commonwealth?

Commonwealth. Well, I had been at Bar Tartine for a couple years. To now, one of my current business partners is the manager there. My other partner, who’s a chef there, we and our friend, Anthony, worked together. We always talked about the type of restaurant we’d like to have. We decided to pool our resources and found some other people who would help us out and were able to open it.

What’s the criteria for a dish that goes on your menu at Commonwealth?

We try to make it interesting, I guess. When we come up with things, I like a lot of classical things, so we try to draw the line between classical and modern. So we’ll look at stuff, “Where does this come from?” “How can we tweak this texture?” “How can we play with flavor?” “How can we take something familiar and maybe change it a little bit so it’s still comforting but surprising?” We just talk about stuff all the time. It has to be delicious, at least according to us, first. And then we like just when there’s a surprise to it, a twist. I think it seems more interesting. For us, we’re just trying to do the path of it’s delicious, but there’s surprise, there’s a little fun to it.

Do you have such a thing as a best selling dish?

This used to sell really well. [points to foie gras bonbon] We’d have this on the tasting menu. Our vegetarian stuff sells pretty well, because everyone just likes to have that. We try to change the menu pretty often so it’s fresh and new, definitely seasonally. We try to keep it fresh so we don’t get bored having to do the same things all the time.

What’s your favorite part about working in restaurants?

I guess the creativity is fun, the interaction. It’s direct. You’re pleasing someone and it’s satisfying that they enjoy their meal and they enjoy something you’re part of. That’s pretty satisfying. To me, the creativity, the camaraderie. Everyone, we just talk about food every day, whether it’s stuff we’re doing, whether it’s the three-star Michelin restaurant someone went to, or the new restaurant someone discovered. We create an environment where everybody thinks about food, everyone talks about food, and it’s pretty open. It’s pretty cool.

Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?

Balut, the little baby eggs. Those aren’t too pleasurable. But other than that, nothing really, no. I’ve traveled a lot and always try things.

Those are pretty easy to avoid, I would think.

Those are pretty easy to avoid. Anything that’s fresh and prepared well, I like. I eat everything.

What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was that?

To be honest, I can’t even remember. It was back in New Jersey. I was a dishwasher when I was 13, and it was an interesting experience. It’s not like the restaurants we have now, but it was fun. It seems like a Peter Pan syndrome, where people don’t want to grow up, want to stay up late and sleep in. Unfortunately, I don’t have those luxuries anymore. In the beginning, that was kind of fun.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?

We look for attitude, not necessarily skill level. We look for people who are willing to learn, who know their basics and people who are committed to being a chef. We can almost sit down and discuss that. Not necessarily resume, because people who enjoy themselves and have a blast don’t necessarily know what they want to do or want to work hard, long hours. It’s not the easiest profession.

What sort of music do you enjoy listening to while cooking, if any?

We let everyone kind of have a turn on Pandora and all the radio stations. I like anything from TV on the Radio, Radiohead, to John Coltrane. It depends on the time of day, and as it gets later and closer to service, old school punk or heavy metal goes on to get a little bit more of a drive. The Abbott Brothers, or something like that, in the morning.

Did you play any sports in high school?

Yeah, I wrestled in high school. That’s organized sports. I played basketball, I played football until I was a 100-pound freshman and everybody else was bigger than me.

What do you do to stay active these days?

These days, it’s harder to stay active. I try to jog a little bit, try to play tennis. I have two little kids, so I don’t really get to do too much like that, but chase them around.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?

You try to. My wife is here with me. We actually got to leave the children behind and spend the weekend together. We spend time, don’t sleep too much, up with them in the mornings, at the restaurant late, and try to make a balance.

Is there a person you’ve never cooked with before that you’d most like to cook with?

There are hundreds of people I’ve never cooked with before that I’d like to cook with. I don’t know, the list probably goes on to chefs in Spain and Japan and Denmark, everywhere.

Address: 2224 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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