Recently I read a food article by Molly O'Neill, a food writer for The New Yorker, entitled "Food Porn." The premise of the article is a historical account of food journalism and how we've arrived at our current state of "food porn" wherein "prose and recipes [are] so removed from real life that they cannot be used except as vicarious experience." Probably if you are reading this article, you have some higher than average level of interest in food and its production and consumption, and have flipped through, or read thoroughly, Food and Wine, Gourmet, or any of the 145 food magazines, quarterlies and newsletters published annually in America. Yes, perhaps you've gleaned a few well-worn recipes here and there, but fundamentally O'Neill makes a salient point-you're not really going to Donnegal, Ireland to tour the Glenveagh's gardens, share a round of drinks at Iggy's Bar and still have time left over to share a family meal with the locals of herb-rubbed lamb loins and slow-roasted tomatoes with olives, are you? This is vicarious living.
I know, I know. That's what magazines are supposed to be about, right? Aesthetically pleasing dishes, recipes with inaccessible ingredients and faraway places? I don't think so. Not any more than women's magazines should primarily be about 5'10", one hundred and ten pound, twenty-five year olds with blond hair, C-cup busts, size four waists and an indefatigable desire to please men. Food journalism should be about the promotion and accessibility of good food, not the utilization of exclusionary tactics. Now, more than ever, we need these inclusive ideas. Which is why small, local (free!) magazines are important. We're not talking about somewhere far away, we're writing about that market closest to your neighborhood and that goat farm that just started up last year and needs your support to thrive in your community.
We're writing about the new restaurant down the street, jennifer james 101 that doesn't even have a sign yet, but Jennifer James, Kelly Burton and Nelle Bauer (aka KNJ Productions), are there, waiting to feed you. I sat down with the chef triumvirate late on a Sunday afternoon at Jennifer and Kelly's home. It was clear there was little delineation between the food cooked in their restaurants and the food they eat on days off-an arugula salad lightly dressed with balsamic, roasted halibut and asparagus, a white Burgundy opened. Formed in June of 2007, the mission is simple-"good food, good wine, cute girls," Nelle deadpans. Amidst laughter, Kelly chimes in "simple, sophisticated dining," and Jennifer adds, "provide for and educate the culinary community." The three have had a busy year. Last September, KNJ Productions joined forces with Chef du Jour, where Jennifer now cooks during lunches Tuesday through Friday and Nelle takes the helm for dinner Thursday through Saturday. In late April, the three also opened jennifer james 101 at 4615-A Menaul Blvd.
Finding the current location was quite an ordeal. They looked at taking over the former Gruet Grille (too big), an old Red Lobster in Nob Hill, a sweet little house/restaurant spot across the street from Betty's Bath and Day Spa in the North Valley (too expensive)-they even searched in Placitas. All the while, however, they were formulating a financial plan, a cooperative idea given to them by one of their supporters. They were looking for a small, neighborhood restaurant, "simple and clean, but still warm," Jennifer says, "like you're in somebody's home, something with personality and character." Hence the financial plan was more community-oriented. Long time supporters who were thrilled with the idea of having Jennifer cook in town again had the option to purchase a "hall pass," or a gift of faith, with a 10% restaurant credit return. This way, Nelle explains, "we had operating capital, which was what we needed, and they had access to dining at a place where they loved to eat." In addition to the "hall pass," jennifer james 101 fans could help by chipping in on "registry items" such as mixers, office supplies, shelving, flatware or stemware.
When the space on Menaul came to their attention, and fit the bill, they called on Tom and Carl from Hey Jhonny to help design the space and eventually, with a lot of patience dealing with the bureaucracy of city permits and contractors, the new restaurant opened its doors alongside retail spaces such as Ruby Shoesday and Top Dog. (A bonus feature as hot dogs and potato chips are favorites of Jennifer. And Nelle tells me that their slogan is going to be "we're not top dog, but we're close to it.") It seats forty and is essentially designed around the open kitchen. The menu, designed by Jennifer, is filled with as many local items as they can muster. "Jen is a big proponent of the local people-like Eli, Cecelia, Tom (local farmers), Heidi (of raspberry jam fame) and the Danes, Vera Scherer and Will Schmaeh (of Alpine Sausage House), the guys at La Mont's Buffalo and Above Sea Level." Having been in and around the restaurant industry for over a decade, they decided to surround themselves with "people who are happy to go to work every day and love what they do."
There is no art on the persimmon-painted walls, as Nelle explains,
"the food is the art." The atmosphere has a lean feeling to it-black, leather-backed chairs and banquettes, white linen, a single sprig in the vase, narrow, cylindrical candle holders, stemless glassware on the tables. "When you opt for a smaller space and are operating on a daily food inventory, it has to be organized, efficient," Jennifer says, and you can feel it when you walk through the door. Rich colors, warm lighting and attention to detail balance the lean feeling. There is a communal table in the restaurant's center, an idea reminiscent of days at graze, when they hosted community dinners where dishes were passed family style for a prix fixe. That's where Jennifer and Kelly first met Nelle, actually, at one of those community table meals. Those of you who dined at the original jennifer james on San Mateo will notice similarities in attentiveness-the lagniappe, or little something, served as a welcome when you sit down, the warm rolls, and a differently flavored butter each evening. The evening I dined there it was Grandma Busse's bread and butter pickles to welcome and brown sugar balsamic butter for the rolls.
The restaurant may be a cooperative effort, with Nelle cooking over at Chef du Jour and "dealing with anything that requires patience, charm and repeated visits" and Kelly baking desserts (I once remember Jennifer telling me she couldn't bake her way out of a paper bag) and overseeing front of the house and P.R., but the menu, at both Chef du Jour and 101, is all Jennifer. "Nelle is the backbone of the business, Kelly is the face and voice, and I," she says, patting her stomach and laughing, "am the tummy." The menu, written in Jennifer's hand with occasional food doodles of carrots, an egg, or the snout of pig, reflects the maturity and confidence of a chef a dozen years in the making. Items like the fried oysters, soft cooked local egg, scallop seviche and prosciutto-wrapped halibut on the spring menu read like pages out of an unwritten Jennifer James cookbook.
"Kelly, Nelle and I are all in agreement of what we want to do, we're not answering to anyone else, and we don't feel like we have to make concessions in any way. For me, personally, taking the time off (after graze closed, she spent time traveling and eating around the southern and eastern United States), I feel more comfortable with what I do. I'm always learning, from other chefs and experiences, but I know now I don't want to stick things on a stick, I'm not going to do any foams and I'm not going to combine eight countries on a plate." Here she can focus on perfecting elements of her trade-the perfectly baked custard, making sure the server knows the intricate details of the menu, and taking care of each customer, individually. "She'll tweak plates from night to night, dish to dish," Nelle tells me and Jennifer explains further. "Each plate may vary slightly depending on what wine I know they're drinking, what primary course they chose to begin with, or if I want to buy them dessert." The benefit of an open kitchen is not only that the customer gets to watch the chef, but the chef knows the details of what is going on with each customer.
There are no secrets here. There are very few ingredients you can't find in your own backyard or from local purveyors. The food on your plate at jennifer james 101 is simple, accessible, community created and oriented to you. There's no need for faraway places or glossy pages, vicarious living or "food porn." Welcome back home.
jennifer james 101 is located at 4615 Menaul NE in Albuquerque. 505.884.3860. They are open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.