Did you know that Chef Jesse Sandlin lived in Perth, Australia? Neither did I. She’s had a lot of adventures. Ups, downs and yeah, that whole Top Chef thing.
Jesse grew up in Baltimore County, moving around a bit, eventually settling in Glen Burnie. She was a latchkey kid – cooking for herself a lot. And, her stepdad always made her try new foods, like frogs’ legs and calves’ liver. Her first cooking job was at Ann’s Dari-Creme, an absolute institution in Glen Burnie. It’s been around for over 65 years and when Marley Station Mall was built, the owner, Anne, refused to sell and the mall was literally built around the place. At 16, Jesse was a cook there, making delicious hot dogs and cheesesteaks, earning her cooking (and memorization) chops. Jesse explains, “This place, it’s really amazing. It’s all women-run, no tickets, no orders, it’s all done by memory. Looking back, I’m a really good line cook, maybe because of my time at Ann’s. Memory is key in this business and I flourished in that kind of environment. I loved it. Having my first cooking experience be there was kind of amazing.”
Jesse never went to culinary school. “It’s really expensive”, she said. “Maybe in hindsight, I would have gone right from high school.” When she was 19, she left Anne’s to move to Sacramento, California with her mom and tried working a normal office job, but it wasn’t really for her. Her roommate was a sous chef and another chef called in sick one day and there was Jesse filling in. She fell in love with the lifestyle – the chaotic dance of working the line, going out to eat and seeing what it was like to really dine with her chef friends. She lived in California for about six years and when she was 24, she had the opportunity to go to Perth, Australia to cook with the friend of a friend. This friend, Gavin, was an Aussie whom she had met at a mutual friend’s wedding in Baltimore. At Gavin’s invitation, Jesse moved to Perth and within two weeks, Gavin had quit the restaurant, which was called The Moon. She worked there for about six months, traveled around Australia in Melbourne and Sydney, and then moved back to Baltimore. “I loved Perth and at the time, I really needed that experience. I watched some of the most amazing sunsets there.”
Now, we’re in 2005. She read about Cindy Wolf’s restaurant, Charleston, in a magazine and called Chef to tell her she wanted to to work with her. She interviewed and was hired to work at Petit Louis in Roland Park. She stayed at Louie for about a year, moved to Spike Gjerde’s Vespa for a few months, then went back to the Foreman Wolf group, finally worked at Charleston as a line cook, then at PAZO as a sous chef. “PAZO was brutal. I mean, 800+ covers on a Friday night was usual. I worked with Michael Costa there and he’s still a dear friend.”
Then came Abacrombie Fine Foods in Mt. Vernon, where she was recruited by Jerry Pellegrino. “That location was just really odd. I learned pretty quickly that being even a block off the beaten path is tough.” She stayed there until 2009 and then, sadly, her Dad died. She quit her job and went to Australia for a month and visited her friend Gavin. During her time at Abacrombie, she was a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef (with regional chefs Mike Isabella and Bryan Voltaggio), which she describes as an odd experience. The Reunion was filmed the week after her Dad’s death and that was just the worst. “During filming, I just kept losing it. It was all focused on family traditions like Thanksgiving, etc. It was just awful.” Finally, a producer was filled in on what Jesse was dealing with and she was excused from filming.
Then, she worked at Sotto Sopra, making pasta, doing pastry, etc. Then she worked with Helmand Karzai (b, Helmand, Tapas Teatro and now, Pen & Quill) to develop a bread program for his restaurant group. That didn’t last, then she had a stint at Cinghiale and then, finally, she was Executive Chef at a new restaurant in Harbor East, Vino Rosina. I had my birthday there one year and always liked that place. They were open a little less than four years, then the owners changed the cuisine to a more casual barbecue spot called Oliver Speck’s, named after Jesse’s pet pig, Oliver. In May 2014, owner Jimmy Lancaster called Jesse on a Monday morning to tell her that they were closing the Oliver Speck’s.
And now, Joker’s & Thieves on Canton Square. “Canton sometimes has the rap around town as a frat boy neighborhood as far as bars and restaurants. We’re trying to do something different and so far, the neighborhood has been very responsive.”
Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook as a kid?
JS: Yeah, I cooked a lot when I was a kid. As a latchkey kid, after school I’d do my chores and homework and then cook myself something for dinner. Simple stuff, you know, like Steak-Ums and roast chicken. I also was a big reader as a kid and I’d check kids’ cookbooks out at the library.
Lots of kids get to choose the meal on their birthday…anything they want (to a point, I suppose…) What would be your ‘birthday meal’ now? What did you ask for when you were a kid?
JS: That was never really a thing, no. But my mom always made me a cake – she was a baker. A lot of times, she’d make me a “Ho Ho Cake” – you know, a roulade. Or a carrot cake. She had a trick that she taught me – using the smallest hole on a box grater for the carrots. That way, you get more of the juice and a more moist cake. Now? I like going out. On my last birthday, my boyfriend, Adam, and I went to Nanami Sushi in Fell’s Point for lunch. Then drinks at Wit & Wisdom and dinner at Salt. The year before that, we went to Pabu. I still really miss that place.
What excites you about your new place, Jokers & Thieves?
JS: Just the idea of bringing something different to the neighborhood. It’s been an interesting experience. Canton wasn’t a place I really came to a lot – sure maybe Shiso Tavern, Mama’s on the Half Shell and a few others – so, this is a newer place to me. I’m learning what sells, too. The old menu was just huge and everything was really inexpensive. We’re pushing boundaries and so far, it’s going well.
The Top Chef thing is tough – it’s good and bad. How do you feel about it now?
JS: That IS how I feel about it – good and bad. It was such a tumultuous time in my life. I wish I could do it again with a clearer head. The isolation was tough. I didn’t do very well on the show, so I don’t want to dwell too much on it. I met fantastic people, but really it’s not what I want to be known for. I also don’t want to be famous, I just want to make good food. I still talk with Mike Isabella in DC and Preeti Mistry – she’s out in Oakland, CA.
What food trend can you absolutely not stand?
JS: All of them! (laughs…) I guess how everything gets hyped in general. Oh, yeah…and “farm to table.” Where did you get your stuff from before (again, laughs…) Farm to table is just something you’re supposed to do anyway. I used to go to the farmers’ market with Tony Foreman at 6:00am. It’s just what I’ve always known and done. I’m a fan of “say what you do and mean what you say.” Farm to table shouldn’t be a catch phrase. I use local, fresh ingredients whenever we can. It’s just better.
How do you balance home and work? I guess days off are big.
JS: Balance? Oh, I don’t. (laughs hard.) I’m always working, most chefs are. I try to be off on Monday and Tuesday. One day I catch up around the house, you know…chores and stuff. The other day, I try to spend with my boyfriend. It’s hard to balance and find time, but you just do your best. Oh, and Game of Thrones. That’s my fave.
Do you have time to watch any food tv? If so, are there any celebrity chefs you really enjoy?
JS: No, no time for that really. My tv is all DVR stuff. Celeb chefs? Ha, like Bryan (Voltaggio), Mike (Isabella) and Jonah (Kim, formerly of Pabu) – I like them! (smiles) Maybe like people like Tony Bourdain, Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller. They’ve done so much for this industry and changed the way people look at food. But other than Bourdain, no one on tv. No.
What do you love about Baltimore?
JS: Everything. Baltimore will always be Charm City to me. You know, the marble steps, painted screens. Mt. Vernon is just gorgeous. I love the dichotomy of places like the kind of divey Mahaffey’s to the higher end like, Rye. I had an old friend in town recently and he described Baltimore as “just real.” It has a small town feel but it’s a city for sure. There are genuinely good people here and in the end, that’s what I love most. The food scene is changing so much – I mean, look. We’re attracting everything from Shake Shack to Michael Mina. That’s pretty cool.
What do you love about food?
JS: I love how it can evoke a memory and can make you feel things. When I make biscuits, I think of my grandmother and great-grandmother. And, watching people eat your food (without being creepy – ha, ha) is fun. You know, they take a big, deep breath. It’s been a long day, they’re so happy to be sitting down for a meal. And, you did that.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the City?
JS: Jack’s Bistro, Salt, Petit Louis. I love the new place in Meadow Mill, La Cuchara. They’re going to do very well. The Corner Charcuterie Bar, too. That bone marrow is (f’ing) outstanding. It’s hard to pin down just a few – I also thing Dooby’s and Bookmaker’s are great spots.
Okay…obligatory…when you cook at home, what do you like to make? Do you cook with your kids? Do you have a favorite ‘go to’ meal at home?
JS: It varies. I always have Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage in the freezer. Judge me all you want, but honestly this is what I want at 2:00am when I get home from work: Eggs, sausage, American cheese (it’s so melty!) on bread. I love breakfast sandwiches, they’re always good. Then on the flip side, when I really want to COOK, I go grocery shopping and do the whole thing.