Barrington High School Alum Jessen Koelling has taken a non-traditional path to education by the pursuit of his life's passions.
We met Jessen at a pop-up outdoor culinary experience he held last September in Barrington. The Argentine Asado themed event featured meat, sausage, potatoes and vegetables cooked over a homemade grill in the ground. As we sat family style at a long table, Jessen explained what we were tasting and touched on what he had learned while in South America.
Jessen's culinary quest has led him to seek opportunities where he can immerse himself in environments to live and learn. Only 27 years old, he has already acquired a number of skills and enviable culinary experiences. We caught up with Jessen to learn more about where he has been and what he is going to do next.
Living60010: What did you like about growing up in the Barrington area?
Jessen Koelling: I enjoyed growing up in Barrington because of the easy access to Chicago. A 50-minute train ride and you were a world away from suburbia. It provided a way to really change your environment quickly and conveniently.
I would go to the city to take photographs or skateboard in all different neighborhoods. This allowed me to learn a lot about different cultures at a young age.
Now looking back I enjoy Barrington for the opposite reasons. It is a quiet and relaxing way of living.
Living60010: What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up?
Jessen Koelling: When I was younger I was a daydreamer and never really thought about my professional career. I just had hobbies like skateboarding, art, and photography. I thought I would just continue doing those things later in life, somehow thinking that it would be a viable career path.
Living60010: What year did you graduate from BHS?
Jessen Koelling: I graduated Barrington High School in 2009.
Living60010: What did you do after graduating?
Jessen Koelling: After graduating from BHS, I went to Columbia College Chicago for photography. Slowly realizing it was not the career path for me I left after 2 years.
Living60010: When did you decide to explore cooking as a profession?
Jessen Koelling: Leaving college I had some odd jobs in Chicago. One job had me setting up parties and events in The Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons Hotels. I was going through their busy kitchens all day. The smells really clicked old memories of food and growing up in my parent's restaurants (one was The Greenery in Barrington).
Living60010: Did you have some favorite dishes as a child?
Jessen Koelling: I did not have a favorite dish growing up. I had many favorite dishes growing up as a child.
Part of my family is from Gulf Coast Alabama. When gathering for a family reunion I remember that food was always important. Everyone would participate in the meal preparation at some point in time. It was something that was special and meaningful.
Seafood gumbo and garlic grilled blue crab are very close to my heart.
Living60010: Any early mentors?
Jessen Koelling: Early mentors would be my family. I remember my father and grandfather teaching me values and lessons that made me progress quickly in kitchens.
Living60010: Where have you worked and what types of things did you learn from those experiences?
Jessen Koelling: Where have I worked.....well the first restaurant I worked in was The Purple Pig in Chicago. Working here was an eye-opening experience into the culinary world. Working for James Beard award-winning chef Jimmy Bannos Jr for 2 years allowed me to see a very broad range of quality products that not many other cooks get to experience or handle. While working the antipasta station I would have to train my palate and taste every single dish that would come off my station. Which in quantity of bites taken would add up quickly when we would do some 800 covers a night. I would leave quite full and bloated.
Chef Bannos pushed his cooks for excellence.
Leaving The Purple Pig I went and worked in Northen Italy at a 1 Michelin star restaurant called Locanda del Pilone. Here I worked 16 hour days 6 days a week. It was a struggle, the hours, the language, the predisposition of being an American cook in Italy.... it took a long time for them to trust me with the pasta....but I overcame and learned everything I could. From making fresh pasta and bread to classic regional dishes.
After Italy, I came back to Chicago and began working for Michelin starred chef Carrie Nahabedian at Naha Chicago. This gave me a great background in classic French cooking. Learning methods that took a long time including braising oxtails in red wine for hours or veal and duck stocks that would cook for 2 days.
Chef Carrie had a heavy emphasis on vegetable cookery and seasonality. What was on the menu was there because it was available from local sources.
Again I stayed until another opportunity came forth.
I moved to California and began working at The French Laundry. This was incredible opportunity to see how a 3 Michelin star restaurant ran and operated. It was a fine dining machine. The restaurant made me question my decision to work as a cook.
So I decided to leave The French Laundry to start farming and to make goat cheese at a creamery outside of Portland. This experience was very eye-opening for a chef. The ability to see produce from start to finish - touching the product from the very beginning is very special.
Cheese making was a great experience but after shoveling out a goat barn, goat cheese just doesn't taste the same anymore.
I stayed outside Portland for the summer and returned to Napa Valley to work wine harvest at Cakebread Cellars. Making everything from Chardonnay to famous Napa Cab. Taking part in the whole process of wine fermentation is something that you cannot normally see as a cook.
So I believe leaving the kitchen for a bit allowed me to develop even more as a cook. To really understand the many aspects and flavors wine has or how fermentation works are lessons that will follow me forever.
I think that becoming well rounded in all culinary aspects is important for a successful chef.
Living60010: What made you decide to travel to South America?
Jessen Koelling: After wine harvest was over I had an opportunity to go and work in Mendoza, Argentina. So once again I packed up my things and left the states to go and learn a new culture and cuisine.
I went to Argentina because the opportunity came up. I had never been and knew very little about the country. I wanted to get back to very basic cooking, using fire in its many forms. I became a "Parillero" or grill cook on a 20-foot long outdoor grill. Cooking mostly large cuts of beef, like whole beef ribs and ribeye or whole butterflies goats.
Ancient methods of cooking like "curando" which is a where we would dig a hole in the ground. Build a fire in it, cover it with large rocks and pink peppercorn tree branches. Fill the hole up with meat and vegetables, covering it with a wet tarp and soil. We would return the next morning to an incredible slowly cooked product that had been developing in the earth's soil for 15 hours.
Living60010: Any funny cooking stories or ways you learned the hard way what not to do?
Jessen Koelling: After working in kitchens for the past 6 years I have an extremely long list of funny stories. Although none of which would be appropriate to repeat for the casual audience.
Kitchens bring the strangest groups of people together from their ages or cultures. Something funny is always bound to happen.
As for the hard way not to do something in a kitchen. I would say I have learned as much as I have because I have failed in almost every way possible. Luckily it was nothing as bad a witnessing a young cook spill 20 quarts of tomato sauce on themselves as if they were taking a shower or oil spilling on a French top stove igniting like a volcano almost burning the whole kitchen down....and so it goes.
Living60010: Whats next for Jessen?
Jessen Koelling: Well while I type this out I am sitting outside a coffee shop in the Netherlands at the beginning of my trip through Europe where I will take time to work in kitchens in Lyon, France and Sevilla, Spain.
After, I will head to Moscow to board the Tran Siberian train. I will spend a few weeks off and on the train experiencing a new culture and cuisine.
I will end the train on the Pacific coast where I will make my way to Japan. Again to work in kitchens for 2-3 months.
Trying to incorporate my want to travel and learn to make it economically feasible.
At Living60010 we wish Jessen safe travels and hope he comes through the area again to share what he has learned!