Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Chef Jason Bowers on pushing boundaries and roast beef sandwiches by the ocean

Posted By on Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 3:15 PM


At the age of 15, Jason Bowers wasn't really supposed to be in the kitchen. But a friend from down the road in Kirksville, Missouri, was manning the meat slicer. So Bowers would sneak in back and fry up a few steaks for the cooks. If he got caught, that would likely be the end of his career at the Golden Corral. But he never did; instead, he discovered how good a mid-rare steak could taste and earned a spot on the line by the end of high school. Bowers, now the executive chef at Hotel Phillips, found that if he just kept pushing, he could open the door to any kitchen he wanted.

After graduating from high school, he looked into universities, not to attend, but to work. Nearby Truman State University, then Northeast Missouri State, had an opening for a banquet chef.

"It was from there that I knew that I wanted to go out and get more education," Bowers says.

He enrolled at the culinary program at Indian Hills Community College. But like his high school days, he was impatient to get back in the kitchen, finishing the 18-month program in 12 months. Two of his instructors had gone to Johnson & Wales University, as had his manager at Truman State, and all three had spoke highly of the cooking school in Providence, Rhode Island.

"I took my wife, my new son, and we packed up our lives in an eight-foot U-haul behind my dad's truck," Bowers says."I don't know what I was thinking. I just jumped in with both feet at 21." 

His days at Johnson & Wales began at 7 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m. Within the hour, he was at work at Papa Razzi -- an Italian trattoria owned by the Back Bay Restaurant Group. If he was lucky, he was home at 1 a.m. and able to sneak in four hours sleep. Bowers and his wife Tiffany would hold out for his one day off a week, when they would pack a picnic and head out to Brenton Point State Park in Newport, Rhode Island. There, they would sit by the ocean, eat roast beef sandwiches and talk about the future.

Not surprisingly, Bowers finished the two-year program at Johnson & Wales in 18 months and quickly found a job in Parsons, Kansas. It was his first chef position, where he had the opportunity to remake the menu. A year later, he moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be the sous chef at the Holiday Inn in nearby Springdale. It was during the 17-hour days that he found that the world slowed down for him even as the demand sped up for food -- the banquet facility required him to oversee dinner for 5,000 people.

"It's the most calming part of this business because you know exactly what's ahead of you," Bowers says.

But 17-hour days don't leave a lot of time for family, so when Bowers saw an opening for a banquet chef in Perry, Iowa, with a Swedish master chef, he jumped at the chance. The next day the chef left for Chicago to help a friend, who had recently launched his restaurant. That friend? Charlie Trotter.

When the chef returned, he had ideas for an ambitious tasting menu and Bowers found himself working with reindeer and baby eels, working on an exotic tasting menu and making sure the banquet facility was running smoothly. But he still hadn't quite found the right work-life balance.

"We really wanted to base ourselves out of Kansas City. We wanted a place for our kids to have a home," Bowers says.

A headhunter directed him towards Dean & Deluca. On the day he drove down to interview, Bowers first stopped in to do a demonstration for chef Daniel Pliska at the University of Missouri in Columbia. It was a job he would have considered until he walked in to the upscale grocery in Leawood.

"The minute I walked in, I was sold. I wondered where had this place been all my life?" Bowers says.

After a rigorous series of tests on cooking techniques and the preparation of a tasting menu, Bowers was offered the job of executive sous chef. He moved to Kansas City in 1998 with his wife Tiffany and their two boys, Drake and Brayten. At Dean & Deluca, he was in charge of the prepared foods and the sandwich and salad islands.

He launched a series of cooking classes and if Nick & Jake's owner Kevin Timmons hadn't walked in, he would probably still be wearing the white chef's coat with the herb sprig on it. But Timmons did and a conversation about vendors turned into a job offer. Bowers helped design the kitchen and the initial menu.  

From there, he went on to Cafe Trocadero -- the popular seafood restaurant that opened in Martini Corner in 2003. After a year and a half, he needed a break from the kitchen, and took a position at the Hitchin Post Steak Company in Kansas City, Kansas. He worked in research and development, creating appetizers and sausages for area casinos, convention centers and grocery stores. He also moonlighted as the night manager at Dean & Deluca.

After five years, he began to miss the buzz of a full dining room. In 2008, the Hotel Phillips was looking for an executive chef to help relaunch 12 Baltimore. Bowers signed on, bringing on chefs that had worked for him at Nick & Jake's and Dean & Deluca. He put together a comfortable kitchen, one where he had a staff that was pushing each morning to get in the door and work together. And each day he pokes his head out into the dining room at 12 Baltimore to see how the sandwich special is being received.

"I wanted to see that look on people's faces. You can see if they're loving a sandwich when they cut into it," Bowers says. "And then you see those same people coming back and enjoying themselves."

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