We experienced the star-studded Taste of the Nation Laguna Beach event on June 3. While we were at the Montage, we met Jennifer Carroll, who rose to prominence on Season 6 of Top Chef and recently left her post at Eric Ripert’s 10 Arts to open Concrete Blonde in Philadelphia. During our conversation, she hinted at how she’s found culinary success.
What will a dish have to be for you to serve it at Concrete Blonde?
Well, my whole cooking style and one of my strong suits is seafood, and that’s what my concept is going to be, small food, seafood. It has to be, obviously, great fish, quality, sustainable, very fresh, very refined, delicate, little hints of modernism in there, but not over the top. Just simple, good, clean food.
What’s the biggest challenge of opening your first restaurant?
Oh, man, just going through the whole learning process, and going through getting the permits, and finding the location. I had one group of partners that I actually split with when we thought things were ready to go. We ended up splitting, so that was a little bit heartbreaking, but I’m going on and moving forward. It’s happened to so many chef friends of mine, when they’ve been trying to open up restaurants. Now I guess it’s my turn. It’s been lots of challenges.
Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
Actually, I was in college for Criminal Justice, pre-law, and decided when I had one semester left that I wanted to leave and go to culinary school, and my parents were not too thrilled, but they were very supportive of me. They’re super proud of me now and that I’m happy and followed my dream and my passion.
What was your very first night like in a restaurant, and where was that at?
Well I grew up always having to have jobs. As a teenager, my very first restaurant was a pizza restaurant called Primavera. I made the French fries, I made the funnel cakes, and I made strawberry lemonade. That was my job, but besides that, my first real restaurant was a place called Sonoma in Philadelphia, and I started off in garde manger and doing prep and learning everything from the bottom up, and worked my way up to become a sous chef there.
What was the most recent dish that you developed, and what was your inspiration?
Well, this dish right here is a new dish. I haven’t done it before. I’ve used duck hearts before, but doing the blood orange marmalade made it super refreshing. I was inspired by Polito Farms here because they wanted us to partner up with a farm and use blood oranges, so I have blood oranges and Valencia oranges. They wanted me to incorporate that into the dish, and duck and orange are just a perfect pair.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?
I really do enjoy everything, but one thing I love cooking with, and don’t really love eating, is salmon. I’ll eat it, but I always think that I’m going to like it more than I do. I don’t, but I love cooking with it because I think it’s one of the most popular fish that the general public likes. I like trying to make myself really like it, so I think that’s why my salmon dishes are some of my best dishes because I’m really trying to figure out how to make myself really love it.
What are you looking for when you’re hiring people to work in your kitchen?
I’m looking for people that are determined, that are focused, that are detail oriented, that are clean. They don’t necessarily have to have years and years of experience because that’s why I’m there. I’m there to teach and to educate and to show them things that they haven’t experienced yet, so I think it’s also great to be able to get a young cook and help to mold him in the way that I have been molded, and just really take them to the next level.
Do you consider signature dishes a positive?
I do. I think you can become really known for one or two things, and it’s not a bad thing if people want to come back and get that. They remember you because of one dish. You’re making a memory. There are multiple dishes of nostalgia I have for certain things, so yes, I’ll go back for a certain restaurant just to get that, so when you go back and it’s not on the menu, it’s like, “Oh, man.” I think it’s great. You don’t need a signature menu. A signature dish is good.
What’s the very first dish that you ever remember cooking, and how did it turn out?
I used to love baking when I was a little girl. One of my favorite things to do was to bake Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, and I remember the butter. You were supposed to use cold butter and I melted all the butter down and I couldn’t understand why my cookies came out so super flat and a little bit shiny and kind of greasy. I used to love them and ate them all, but I couldn’t understand why it didn’t puff up, and it was because of the hot butter going into the dough. I ate them all…There are these great chocolate chip cookies, Tate’s chocolate chip cookies. They’re starting to sell them all over the East Coast and they’re super flat too.
How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?
I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, being a chef, is trying to find balance between personal life and work life. Right now, I definitely do not have it. My work career completely takes over. It’s probably 90 to 10% work over personal. Maybe one day I’ll find that balance, but it’s something I haven’t achieved yet.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I did. I played soccer and lacrosse.
How do you stay active these days?
These days, I run and I have a beautiful gym in the apartment that I live in, so I run and I do the whole circuit. I want to get into doing yoga or pilates, something like that, maybe something a little less stressful. Maybe that will help me achieve my balance in my life.
Is there a person you’ve never cooked with before that you would most like to cook with?
There are so many chefs that inspire me. A lot of women chefs, like Gabrielle Hamilton, I would love to cook with her. Barbara Lynch is another one I would love to cook with. I’ve cooked for so many great chefs too, working with Eric Ripert for a long time and doing so many different events by sharing kitchens together and meeting all these different chefs, I’ve been really lucky. There are always so many people. I think I may go too long. Daniel Humm is another guy I’d like to cook with. Marc Vetri in Philadelphia, I know him and I’m good friends with him, but I’ve never actually cooked with him. I’ll keep going.
What would you like to be known for as a chef?
I would like to be known for my food, at the end of the day, that I have really good, well executed, great balance, great flavor, that you crave and you want to come back and have over and over and over again.