It’s a rarity when you have a vision of what you want to be at the early age of four. But for Jesse Jones, becoming a chef is a dream realized.
The Newark, New Jersey native spent summers traveling from the projects with his mother and sister to Grandma Hannah Jones’ two-room house on a Snow Hill, North Carolina farm. This is where Jones received his foundational culinary skills of cleaning greens and snapping beans – not to mention the many occasions the preschooler was permitted to lick the batter of a homemade cake whipped up by Grandma Jones.
Those early experiences would ultimately bode well in Jones’ future as both a personal and celebrity chef, in addition to a restaurateur.
Chef Jesse has cooked and catered for television personalities Whoopi Goldberg and Sunny Hostin of ABC-TV’s “The View,” and most recently, for charity benefits including the Kool Kids Foundation, founded by Robert “Kool” Bell of the legendary Kool & The Gang.
As illustrious as this celebrated lifestyle may appear, Chef Jesse’s world could have played out differently.
Learning how to cook, and winning the love of a mother who worked three jobs to support the family in a fatherless home, saved him from those mean streets. “My mother always had my back,” said Jones. “I never wanted to disappoint her. I could have done stupid things, but it was my mother and God who looked out for me.”
Jesse credits mother Mildred “Millie” Jones and his grandmother for paving the way for his successful food career. “Watching my grandmother cook behind her cast-iron stove made me the chef I am today,” he said. “She and my mom gave me the confidence I needed to believe in myself. They would always say: ‘Junior, you’re gonna be the cook in the family because of your patience in the kitchen and your ability to create your own style.’ And they were right.”
Matriculating at Hudson Community College in culinary arts and Katharine Gibbs School in business prepared Jones for a food industry career. He was a food service director at Aramark for twenty years before ultimately opening his own restaurant with the support of his wife, Annette.
Twenty years ago, Chef Jesse manifested “Heart and Soul” which launched in South Orange as a modern southern comfort eatery. Throngs of people traversed the state for a taste of the chef’s specialties: braised oxtails, smothered turkey wings, five-cheese baked macaroni, and honey buttermilk cornbread. But after a three-year run, financial hardships, an inadequate location choice and unforeseen complexities undercut sustainability, forcing the restaurant to close. “I felt like a complete failure,” said Jones. “There are some things I could have done differently. I just didn’t know it at the time. But I learned that failure is falling and getting right back up.”
Chef Jesse’s recipes are permanently embedded in his cookbook/memoir, “POW! My Life in 40 Feasts.”
The feasts cover the gamut from Super Bowl to Back-to-School to New Year’s Day buffet featuring his own creative interpretation of cassoulet. By substituting black-eyed peas for haricot beans, Chef Jesse compliments the French-inspired dish with a cornbread crumb topping that alters the flavor with a uniquely cultural spin.
As a trained chef, he believes certain seasonings and ingredients can enhance virtually any meal. And most southern dishes can surely afford healthier tweaking to avoid health challenges. “Vegetables should be cooked al dente,” said Jones. “Nobody needs to overcook collard greens, mustard greens or turnips for twelve hours! Unnecessary! POW!”
Just as “BAM!” is to Chef Emeril Lagasse, “POW!” is to Chef Jesse. “Passion. Opportunity. Work.” is the mantra by which he lives through adversity and good fortune.
Jones imparts his wisdom and experience by mentoring students through ProStart in Newark, Paterson, Passaic and West Caldwell. It is aimed to offer high school students culinary arts and restaurant management skills as prospective careers. For the past twenty-five years, the program has afforded Chef Jesse the ability ‘to give back’ to aspiring food professionals.
“I encourage young people to dream big! And by staying passionate, the opportunities will come as long as you wait patiently,” said the chef. “It is important to work productively, smart and hard. You’ll be amazed by what’s out there for you.”
Arguably, Jones is a force to be reckoned with in a sea of Black chefs who are on the national scene today. Each has their own style and manner of gracing the table with exquisite foods that satiate the palate.
Thus, it is no different from his own upbringing with aunties who ‘put their foot in their cooking’ with their own specialties.
“Aunt Ella Mae could put a hurtin’ on you with her pineapple coconut cake and mean potato salad,” said Jones, “and Aunt Minnie Mae was dangerous in the kitchen with her succulent chicken and dumplings. And you can’t leave out Aunt Mary – the ‘Fried Chicken Queen.’ That’s all she could make, but it was the best. Not even the church women could come close to her fried chicken!”
Giving honor to the women in Chef Jesse Jones’ life means “never giving up because family is everything and it’s important to me to keep the Jones legacy alive. It seems inevitable that the impact of preserving precious memories of food and family will connect the Joneses for generations to come.”
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