(Originally published February 23, 2013 on Examiner.com).
Note since this article was published, Chef de Jesus has held a number of different positions in different kitchens.
As the biracial child of an all American white mother from Kansas, and a Filipino father, it’s no wonder that Chef Derrick de Jesus, with his Hispanic last name, when cooking looks beyond the shape and color of any specific ingredient to understand that ingredient’s content of character including its essential flavors. For his cooking, like his life, has been a search for, and understanding of his identity for both himself and his food.
After cooking school, and spending almost eight years working as a good soldier in the corporate kitchens of the Ritz Carlton, at Jackson Hole and for the Patina Group, a six month stage at world renowned Pujol in Mexico City gave De Jesus his culinary direction and inspiration. Working with ChefEnrique Olvera, Derrick learned how to see flavors instead of ingredients. For example what’s a beet? A beet’s flavor is earthy, and sweet with bitter tops. So for De Jesus ingredients are more like cars transporting flavors inside to culinary destinations.
After coming back from Mexico, and then working with Chef Ari Taymor at Salute (now Brick & Mortar), the Alma pop-ups as well as at Alma’s new home in downtown LA as the Chef De Cuisine, Derrick decided he wanted to cook his own cuisine and gave notice last fall.
So now he has been pursuing and further defining what that cuisine is plus has been having “MSG” pop-ups every other week on Mondays at City Sip in Echo Park. These pop-ups began at end of January and have continued to run through February. His last date at this spot was February 18th. He had hoped to have continued access to this location despite City Sip recently closing its doors, but City Sip’s power is being shut-off March 1st. So Derrick is taking his pop-up to the West Side, and will be doing his pop-up every Monday night at the Brick House Kitchen in Venice where he’ll have a better kitchen space, and thus have to make fewer compromises to get his menu out.
Like Taymor, Derrick’s “authorial cuisine” is a reflection of who Derrick is and where he comes from. Though Taymor and De Jesus have some common approaches to food, for example using whole vegetables and limiting items in plates, Derrick’s cuisine is quite a bit different than Taymor’s due to Derrick’s own training and very different upbringing.
Derrick’s upbringing is the exact opposite of what’s you’d expect a chef’s life story to be. His parents divorced when he was four, and living with his mother he moved a lot, at one time fourteen times in three years. There was no Filipino grandmother who taught him family recipes. Rather his mother couldn’t cook; she served Derrick and his brother bland American food, so much so that when he visited with his father and his father’s family, these two boys wouldn’t eat Filipino food since both thought that food was too strange.
Not until the sixth grade, when Derrick’s mother settled down in Alhambra , CA did Derrick start to form friendships through which he discovered food, especially the Asian food of the 626. But still, like many biracial children, he wasn’t exactly clear as to who he was since he was a part, but not a part, of so many different worlds.
As he’s matured and found others like himself, Derrick has become more comfortable with who his is and how his upbringing is reflected in his cooking. His food thus isn’t easy to categorize, since his upbringing straddles many different cultures. His food isn’t fusion per se, but it combines his French training, American comfort foods, Asian flavors, and unexpected ingredients in well balanced dishes that are part of well composed meals.
Such a bold approach with aggressive flavors may not appeal to some palates. Plus since his food is about balancing sweet, sour, bitter and other flavors, substitutions and modifications aren’t always easy to accommodate since such modifications affect the overall flavor composition of each dish. For example, with a beet dish served at Derrick’s first night of his pop-up in Echo Park, ricotta is used as a neutral element to offset the sweet, spicy and bitter flavors of the beets, beet tops and hoisin sauce.
Over the course of his several pop-up services thus far, Derrick has been open to feedback from his customers, especially since this is what he sought. For Derrick felt if he only served to friends and family that he wouldn’t get the critical input that he wanted to further develop and refine his food.
So again starting March 4th, Derrick is relocating from Echo Park to Venice where he just finished negotiating with the Brick House to operate every Monday night for the foreseeable future. His ultimate goal is to have his own permanent restaurant. Though before that occurs, he plans to do additional stages at two prestigious European restaurants this fall In De Wulf in Belgium and Relae in Copenhagen. For Derrick, stages are like “master courses” where he continues his lifelong culinary education by learning from others how he can further develop his own food.