PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK C. ANDERSON
Chef Michael Jones on what makes a restaurant truly great
There has always been something lurking behind the legendary outbursts chef Michael Jones is famous for: smashing a guest’s plate with a huge halibut backbone, targeting a diner with a fire extinguisher, calling the sheriff about a table at his own restaurant. That something is respect.
The guy who got the backbone crash was questioning the local sourcing of the Monterey Bay fish in Jones’ “home.” The fat cat who got retardant-blasted wouldn’t put out his cigar. The table of laggers knew full well it was past time to evacuate for a second seating at the now-closed Cachagua General Store.
In other words, respect for product, respect for others, respect for the rules of the game.
That all feeds into respect for what restaurants, done right, should be: one group of humans expending life force to take care of another, bringing joy via old-fashioned elbow grease. For Jones it’s a sacred agreement.
“You’re coming into my home,” he says. “I gotta take care of you. I will do the best I can, but you are in my home. Don’t yell at my people or make weird demands.”
And he knows how to take care of guests with plates and price points that are the stuff of local lore: think house-smoked wild salmon, incredible Corralitos sausage pizzas, oysters roasted with porcini cream and asiago cheese, served in very familial settings, as was the case with Cachagua General Store’s carnival-like Monday Night Dinners. Multiple courses and wine would run maybe $50 for two.
The “treat-you-like-family” refrain, on other chefs’ lips, might ring cliché. With Jones it’s what he seeks in the places he frequents, from the taco shop tucked in the back of Mi Tierra market in Seaside to la Balena’s celebrated organic Cali-Italian in Carmel.
“If you’re not creating the feeling that someone’s part of the family, if you’re not sharing something you’re personally invested in,” he says, “you’re just flipping burgers.”
I’ve talked about these things with Jones for 15 years. He’s been thinking about them since he started in kitchens back in college, though his Cornell training was in engineering. His Facebook followers get an articulate and entertaining torrent of the results, both food related and unrelated. Recent examples include thoughts on lack of drinking water on a Navajo reservation and why he rioted after the Kent State massacre. Eventually he circles back to “douche bag” bad actors in restaurants.
“If you’re not sharing something you’re personally invested in, you’re just flipping burgers.”
Award-winning Carmel Valley Ranch executive chef Tim Wood has known Jones for 20 years, and doesn’t want people to get too caught up in the rants when searching for Jones’ soul.
“He’s definitely a one-of-a-kind gonzo who’s pro any fight where a man is down,” Wood says. “If there’s an injustice happening, he tells people how he feels. But behind all the talk he has a huge heart. In the end he advocates for people who work their butts off.” Wood goes on to add Jones recently volunteered to drive food to furloughed employees on Wood’s staff.
Back in 2008, the last time a major crisis (The Great Recession) gripped the world, Jones told me, “So many chefs will do anything for people: burn arms, work until they break, work sick, drunk, whatever, in order to take care of a guest.”
“It’s part of our DNA,” he says. “People who are wired our way drift toward being chefs. Why else would you do it? It’s not for the money or the glory. The people not wired for it don’t last. Nobody that doesn’t have an open heart survives the selection process.” Right about now, open hearts feel as important as ever.
“You just take care of people,” he tells me while driving to Soquel to deliver food to a chef’s kid who is isolated and unable to leave his home. “It comes back around.”
One real way it returns for him, on a daily basis, is in the reactions to the latest iteration of Cachagua General Store.
He’s using Massa’s tasting room (formerly Heller Estate) in Carmel Valley Village to prepare prodigious value, dished out the back door. CGS 3.0 (or is it 5.0?) includes pickup or delivery bargains like Wilson Ranch spring lamb at $8 per serving, nearly 2 pounds of cashew and cumin-crusted pork loin for $10 and Nobu-style marinated fresh local rockfish at $8 a pound. We’re talking Michelin star quality at swap meet prices to help people get through. (Rotating menus and delivery updates appear on CGS’s Facebook page.)
“It’s just that life is supposed to be about joy,” he says. “And we do it through food.”
The guy is rarely speechless, but when I compare high investment/ limited return service occupations like journalism and restaurants, he goes quiet. Eventually he agrees they’re not just a job, they’re both a benediction and affliction.
“It’s a privilege to experience people’s happiness when they get great food, even when it’s another 9am–9pm day and the refrigeration went down,” he says. “There are so many rewards, like the look on the face of an 87-year-old lady whose son hooked her up with some of our food for Mother’s Day.”
In the face of widespread suffering, he counts blessings, including people renewing an admiration for the craft to which he’s dedicated.
“For one thing, people are cooking at home and realizing it’s hard,” he says. “They’re beginning to see the rewards too and finding a sense of pride—‘I made something beautiful’—and have a whole lot more appreciation for restaurants and service.”
Not that all restaurants will return whenever this tunnel finds the light. “The only guys left around will be the ones who like it—like me, this is what I do, it’s not really a choice,” he adds. “You can’t wake up in the morning and decide to be really into serving people any more than you can wake up and decide to be African-American.
“If the owner isn’t on site with a longtime chef or something similar, they’re not going to make it.”
In other words, those for whom it’s not just about food will remain, because it’s simply what they do. Which is something you gotta respect.