Jesse Mallgren, Chef, Madrona Manor
Homegrown Talent & Michelin Star in Sonoma’s Wine Country - Talking with Jesse Mallgren, Chef, Madrona Manor
They say you can never go home again, but that certainly doesn’t apply to Jesse Mallgren, the executive chef at the beautiful Madrona Manor in the heart of Sonoma County’s wine country. Born in San Francisco, the Bay Area native took a circuitous route back to his roots when he donned the toque at this exquisite Victorian estate. Built in 1881, the luxuriously appointed Madrona mansion is surrounded by acres of organic gardens, from which Jesse takes both inspiration and many of the ingredients for his creative and uniquely personal cuisine. In 2009, the Restaurant at the Madrona Manor was awarded a Michelin Star, the only restaurant so honored in all of Sonoma Country.
We caught up with Jesse last month to learn more about him and to hear what he had to say about his approach to cooking and to life in general.
JPW: Let’s start at the beginning. What was your first job in the restaurant business?
JM: I was 16 and in high school. My family was living in Santa Rosa. I got a job washing dishes one day a week during school at this wonderful little restaurant in Santa Rosa called Matisse. I found I loved being in the kitchen and I was constantly asking the chef what he was doing. One day, he asked me to help him cook and soon I was doing both, cooking one day a week and washing dishes one day a week.
JPW: Did you then go on to attend cooking school?
JM: No, not at all. In the summer, I began working full-time at Matisse and thought of enrolling in the CCA (California Culinary Academy). The chef at Matisse sort of talked me out of it. He told me if I really liked a restaurant, and really wanted a job, I should offer to work free for a night or two.
JPW: So you decided to go the apprenticeship route?
JM: Yes. In 1989, I was 19 and Gary Danko became the chef at Chateau Souverain. Chateau Souverain was a winery but also had a beautiful restaurant located right in the midst of the vineyards. The restaurant had closed down on January of that year and Gary was starting fresh, with a whole new crew. My first job was as a line cook on the night shift, doing prep work. As time went on, Gary kept promoting me up the kitchen ladder, from pantry chef, to grill chef, to sauté, and finally, sous chef. I wanted to learn how to do it all.
JPW: You then went to work under Jeremiah Towers at Stars, is that correct?
JM: Basically yes. I moved around a little bit first, doing jobs at a couple of restaurants around Sonoma, including the Sonoma Mission Inn. I then did 3 years at Stars, when it really was the culinary center of San Francisco high society. Every day was an event. Willie Brown (former Speaker of the California Assembly and two-time Mayor of San Francisco) and Herb Caen (legendary San Franciscan newspaperman and chronicler of the city’s high society) dined there almost daily. I left when it finally lost its luster. But what a run it had. It was a truly legendary restaurant.
JPW: You then went to Syzygy, in Aspen Colorado. How did that come about?
JM: The old fashioned way. I answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. After three years at Stars, I was looking for a change and a different quality of life. Morton Oswald, the chef at Syzygy, believed in that too. I took the job as sous chef there and though I worked 12-14 hours a day, it was, in fact, a nicer quality of life. A lot of that had to do with Morton Oswald himself. He taught me how to ski and among my favorite memories are the times we would get together before going to work and hit the slopes before settling into the kitchen. He believed in maintaining a balance in your life and I try to do that too.
JPW: So you then decided to return home?
JM: No. In fact, I didn’t plan on returning home at all. By this time, I had met my wife and we decided we would try something completely different and so we moved to Hawaii. But I was unhappy with the restaurants and after six months, in 1999, we moved back to Santa Rosa. Almost immediately, I heard that there was an opening at the Madrona.
JPW: What was the restaurant’s philosophy when you first arrived?
JM: Well, there realty wasn’t any philosophy. There was no real presence. I worked with the then-chef de cuisine for a week and, by then, he had lost interest. He would come in late every day. I arrived in October, and outside, in the gardens, these beautiful tomatoes were just rotting on the vine. Rather than pick them the chef was buying tomatoes from purveyors because he felt it was just too hot and too much work to pick his own from our own gardens. Well, after a week or so, he just stopped coming in and I asked if I could take over. The owners of the Manor said yes, and all of a sudden, I had my first head chef’s job.
JPW: How did you approach your new job?
JM: I began by re-training the crew. Some were good cooks. They had just become lazy. I realized that managing people correctly would be far more effective and better way to improve the kitchen than starting all over with an entirely new crew. So, to the extent possible, I tried to keep the same crew. I should add that this approach was important for the owners at Madrona. They too wanted me to keep as many of the employees as possible.
JPW: Tell us a little more about the beautiful gardens and their influence on what you do.
JM: The gardens were already fully organic before I arrived. But they were sadly under-utilized. It was primarily being used for herb garnishes and, to some extent, salad greens. But that was pretty much it. The gardener pre-dated not just me, but most of the chefs who worked here before me as well. He’s an interesting and very talented individual. After working for so many chefs, at some point, he just began planting what he wanted to eat. When I took over, he, quite naturally, felt that I would be just like all the rest. But, over the next few years, I convinced him that I was as interested in what he grew as he was. Now he will grow anything for me.
JPW: How have these gardens influenced your approach to Menu preparation?
JM:I like using every aspect of what we plant, from sprout to seed. It’s influenced me to look beyond the order sheet. Now, I do the opposite. I take a walk through our gardens at least three times a week. If I see something coming up, I ask myself how I can utilize it as much as possible. In other words, I let the garden tell me what to plan, and then I go to my Menu sheet and my purveyors to complement what I’m growing myself.
JPW: Do you have a personal philosophy behind your approach to cooking?
JM: If I have a philosophy, it comes down to this: I like to cook what I like to eat. Since Madrona was my first head chef position, at first, I felt I needed, or wanted to cook what great chefs I admired, and magazines, said I should. But beginning about four years ago, I said to myself, why don’t I forget all that and cook things I want to eat. I think people who dine at the Madrona will tell you that there’s love in the food. Simply put, if on a particular day, nothing speaks to me about mashed potatoes, I won’t do it.
JPW: You also have such a light, inventive, and even amusing touch.
JM: Well it’s a sense of joy in cooking. In our kitchen, we actively try to surprise the diner. Our menu tends to keep information about the ingredients we use in each dish a little vague. We do that deliberately. We know the customer is spending money. We want to keep that customer excited throughout the meal, excited for the next course. We want our customers to say, “OK, asparagus. I know asparagus. I wonder how the Madrona is going to do asparagus.”
JPW: What advice would you offer a young chef?
JM: Pay attention. Taste everything you can. And read. For example, not too long ago, I decided we’d focus on bread. My three line cooks each bought a different bread book. That kind of involvement, that degree of immersion means that you’re doing the chef’s work for him or her. Not only is that immensely appreciated, you learn so much more by seeking out the knowledge yourself. I could teach my staff ten different ways to do sour dough bread for instance, but instead, we tried different combinations of techniques that they volunteered to see what might result. Now, not only can I make sour dough bread ten different ways, each of my line cooks can too.
I’d also tell a young chef not to be afraid to go in early and work for free. Every chef I have ever known, including myself, loves that kind of commitment.
JPW: Finally, what would you say is your personal goal now?
JM: That’s a tough one. I would certainly like the restaurant here at Madrona Manor to be well publicized and busy every night. I guess that would be Number One. Do I want another Michelin Star? Yes, of course I do. But if you asked me what my goal really is. I guess I would have to say that I want to have a restaurant where other chefs want to eat. That has always been my goal.
Written by: James P. Woods, Jr.
Jim is an independent writer based in San Francisco, CA, where he and his wife Kate are raising three of the world's most adorable, intelligent, and no doubt, beautiful children. Jim can be reached at: email@example.com).