Chef Chats with Two of Omaha’s Brightest Openings

Q&A with J.Coco’s Jennifer Coco and Lot 2’s Joel Mahr

Chef: Jennifer Coco

Restaurant: J.Coco

Tell us about your culinary background? Where did you study? How did you start in this industry?

I started bussing tables at the age of 15 for The Baking Company. Someone got sick one day and they asked if I could help out in the kitchen. I learned some basic kitchen skills and when I was in college I kept cooking to pay for law school. I didn’t end up going to law school because I decided to stay cooking. I was taught by restaurants, not culinary schools.

What is unique about your cooking style?

I haven’t worked with too many others head chefs because I have ended up falling into head chef positions. I don’t have any classic skills and I like to just make things up as I go. Many people struggle with that – no recipes, rules or techniques. We, in the kitchen, learn things together, it’s collaborative.

Who are you culinary mentors? Who has influenced you the most?

Sandy Whye. The Baking Company was an all-woman kitchen. That was pretty unique then. Now, it’s the people that I work with and their cultural backgrounds and what they can show me about their unique styles and methods that influence me.

What is your favorite ingredient currently?

Pomegranate.

What is your most challenging ingredient?

Learning about the whole picture of an animal – trying to roast a whole pig or break down an entire animal.

Do you have a “can't-live-without” piece of kitchen equipment?

Coworkers. That’s the most valuable thing to me, without them I’d be screwed.

Do you have any advice for young chefs?

Get into a kitchen and start cooking. Put your head down and work hard. You don’t need to go school. It just takes hard work and determination.

Chef: Joel Mahr

Restaurant: Lot 2

 Tell us about your culinary background? Where did you study? How did you start in this industry?

I started later in life, I was 25 when I started cooking. I studied at Metropolitan Community College on the Ft. Omaha campus. I wanted to absorb enough knowledge as I could. I worked at Blue, V.Mertz, and The French Café. I also learned a lot from grandmother, we cooked every holiday dinner together.

What is unique about your cooking style?

My primary culinary style is French inspired. But I like to use global ideas and not be focused on just one style of cuisine. Asian, Latin, Mexican – these are important to know, a well trained chef should be diverse. 

Who are you culinary mentors? Who has influenced you the most?

Two chefs that I have always been a fan of are Marco Pierre White and Fergus Henderson.

What is your favorite ingredient currently?

Pork – any way.

What is your most challenging ingredient?

Seitan – it’s a mixture of vital wheat gluten and a nutrional yeast that you make into a ball and poach. It can then be used like a steak or hamburger. “Wheat meat” is what it is sometimes referred to as. It isn’t as much as a challenge but a more creative option for vegetarian. 

Do you have a "can't-live-without” piece of kitchen equipment?

A really good chef knife – you can do pretty much anything with it. 

Do you have any advice for young chefs?

A favorite quote of mine is by Marco Pierre White and he said, “Working into kitchens carved the man that I am today.” After all the chaos, at the end of the day it is just food.  Observe as much as can, ask questions, learn as much as you can and read many books. 

posted at 08:01 pm
on Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

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