Pop into Jones Wood Foundry on any given afternoon or evening, and you might find a pair of neighborhood residents shuffling in for their regular table, a woman celebrating a promotion from the same perch she holds four nights a week, or a wine distributor putting away his portfolio so he can chat up the bartender while he tucks into a plate of bangers and mash. Because this is one of the few British spots in the city, it gets its share of destination traffic–but above all, Jones Wood is a neighborhood joint, a “public house,” says chef-owner Jason Hicks, “where people can drown sorrows or celebrate over a beer.” And that was intentional: When Hicks and his business partner Yves Jadot first opened Jones Wood Foundry, the chef says they were singularly focused on wooing the denizens of the restaurant’s immediate four-block radius. Netting diners from other parts of the city was just a bonus.
See Also: Part 2 Of Our Interview With Jason Hicks
That diners beyond the Upper East Side eventually caught on, though, is unsurprising: Hicks has an impressive résumé. After the U.K. native spent his early career cooking in ski resort towns around the world, he landed a sous chef position at La Goulue here in NYC, leaving three years later to help Gerry Hayden re-work the kitchen at Aureole. After a brief hiatus from this city’s restaurant scene, he returned to La Goulue as the executive chef as that team geared up to open Orsay. By that point, Hicks had his sights set on opening a British concept, tentatively called the Blue Nun, and he left La Goulue again intending to secure a space–only to be lured back by the ownership team, who promised to back him if he’d help reorganize the kitchen at Orsay.
Five years later, Hicks was still in the kitchen when the credit crunch happened. “The future at Orsay was looking bleak because I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing I’d been doing for the past 15 years,” he explains. So he jumped ship for the last time, heading up to Connecticut to work in a bistro, which left him time to work on his own project. He met Jadot when he did some consulting for him, and after Hicks pitched his concept, the pair immediately formed a partnership and got to work.
Jones Wood Foundry opened in early 2011, and it’s been humming along smoothly since. “This is what we hoped would happen,” Hicks explains. “We don’t put ourselves against any other restaurants in the city. We just do what we do.”
In this interview, Hicks weighs in on what he hates seeing on menus, what it was like to eat squirrel on a stick, and the obscure dish on his menu that should be a home run.
Up next, Hicks talks about a food he won’t eat.
Describe your culinary style.
I’m classically French trained, and I always go back to what I was taught at the beginning no matter what I’m doing. Here, it’s more high-end bistro than fine dining. I left fine dining when I came to New York.
Who or what inspires you?
People that stick to their guns and have a vision and go out and get it without stomping on people along the way. People I work with respect me because they’ve seen me doing every single job. Whether I go on to fame and fortune or not, I can sleep well at night. I’ve been true to my career, and I respect people with that mentality. One of the kids I hired at the beginning worked at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Red Lobster. He had a terrible time at the beginning–he couldn’t even find a tomato. But his attitude was great. He came in three to four hours early to learn. He does everything we do here right, and he’s not going to try to cut the corner when I’m not around. That’s inspiring.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
I admire unsung heroes. For every one celebrity chef, there are 100 better chefs that never got that opportunity–and they don’t whore themselves out. In terms of people who have made it, by far, Daniel Boulud. He’s a friend, and he’s very in touch with what he’s doing.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
On trust and respect. When I opened here, I didn’t have anyone peel an onion or make an omelet–I hired everyone based on attitude. I brought one cook with me from a previous restaurant; other than that, everyone was green. I didn’t want anyone coming in with a preconceived notion of how a steak and kidney pie should be because I needed to figure that out myself.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
I start with classic recipes, like what’s in Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook. The National Trust in England has cookbooks going back to bygone days, and they have recipes for how steak and kidney pudding would be. I take those recipes, rework them, keep them true to format, and make them palatable here. I’m not adding truffles, but if the steak and kidney pie crust sucks, I add my crust. The fish and chips here is not like fish and chips you’ll get in the fish and chip shop, but I use the concept and follow the frame.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
I can’t eat calf liver. I can taste it for seasoning purposes, but I couldn’t eat a bite.
On the next page, Hicks talks about eating squirrel on a stick.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
I’m not one of those to stand on the soapbox and talk about sustainability and farm-to-table, but I’m in touch with it. I wouldn’t do something like baby seal sashimi because it’s not right.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
Chocolate molten cake. It’s everywhere, and it’s usually horrible.
Who’s the most underrated culinary figure in New York City?
Without any question, the dishwasher. He’s getting his ass kicked from the moment he walks in until the moment he leaves, and he seldom gets any praise. You take him for granted until the dishes don’t get washed. And the quicker he gets, the more work he gets.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Squirrel roasted on a stick on a fire. There wasn’t really any meat on it. That was pointless.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
My grandmother. A Sunday roast.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
People putting something back into the industry. Chefs teaching people instead of squeezing the juice out out of them.
Up next, Hicks talks about the importance of grasping the basics.
What do you wish would go away?
Unfair treatment by the city. This is one of the toughest industries in the city; we’re working seven days a week, 365 days of the year. It’s unfair that we’re easy fodder for new laws and regulations.
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
It’s on the menu: braun [head cheese]. Putting it together requires so many skill sets. If it’s good, it’s made from the parts of the animal that wouldn’t normally be used, and it’s delicious. It should be a home-run seller.
What do you wish you could tell your line-cook self?
When I’m training someone, I always go to great pains to show them the classic way, so that when they’re developing their repertoire, they don’t start cutting the corner before knowing the right way. Otherwise, you have nothing to go back to. Take béchamel sauce, for instance. There’s a classical way to make it, but 99 percent of restaurants in New York don’t do it like that. Understand the way it’s supposed to be before you alter it.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene?
If you’re really pushing it in the industry, you’re going to be working a lot of hours, and your social life is nonexistent. So, keeping a balance between work and personal life. I have three kids that I hardly ever see.
What’s next for you?
The Peacock and the Shakespeare, opening this fall.
For tips, tricks, and NYC restaurant highlights from chef Hicks, check this space tomorrow.