CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.
Go ahead, make his day. Eat Jimmy Gibson's food, and tell him what you think. This chef has been in the culinary trenches long enough to tell you, it's not all the glamor you see on television.
Born in Latrobe, Penn., and raised in nearby Jeannette, Gibson stumbled upon his calling in the food business when he was roaming the country as a young man.
In the early days, Gibson lived with his grandparents, where he got to eat his grandmother's home cooking.
"Everything was done from scratch in the kitchen, milk was delivered to the house, gardens were out back, and the neighbors had chickens," Gibson recalled.
The oldest of his siblings, he helped in the kitchen and around the house.
His mother, a single parent, went to school and worked.
"There were holidays where everybody cooked, and eventually I started helping, but I never thought I would do this for living," he said.
Gibson said he was a rambunctious kid who liked to explore. He pushed--and often broke boundaries--because he "wanted to see stuff."
After high school, Gibson hitchhiked his way to California, and got his first taste of the restaurant world: Working as a dishwasher.
Gibson liked the camaraderie, and felt comfortable in the kitchen.
"Sometimes it didn't feel like work. Plus you ate for free," he said.
As Gibson moved around the country, he honed his cooking skills in a variety of restaurants, from fine dining to casual eateries. When he got his chance at the grill, he discovered he was a natural, and was soon grilling steaks like nobody's business.
Gibson moved to Cincinnati to work at The Phoenix. He went on to open Ciao Baby, and later, worked for Jeff Ruby as his corporate chef. According to Gibson, he opened a few restaurants for Ruby, including Tropicana, Carlo & Johnny, and Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse downtown.
In 2012, Gibson opened Jimmy G's (dining room pictured above), a restaurant he says his customers describe as "a steak place for foodies." Gibson didn't want the restaurant to be his namesake, but his business partners insisted on it.
"I just want to cook. I'm a hardworking cook, and that's what I want to be known for."
Food and cooking philosophy
"I make food with no attitude. There's no need to overcomplicate things. By the time you get everything on the plate, and get it all sculpted, the food is cold. Besides, you can only taste so many things at once."
Gibson, too, has put too many things on a plate. Over the years, though, he's learned to keep things simple.
"You realize what belongs, what doesn't, and what's superfluous."
Gibson appears to have transcended the thinking stage of his craft. His approach to food just comes naturally.
"I don't even think about it. I could start with a technique, then pick a food to do it with. Or I could start with food, and match the technique to bring out the best in the food," Gibson said. Sometimes, it could be something he sees that has nothing to do with food, that sparks the creation of the next great dish.
"I see things moving back to being simpler. People are going back to the basics," Gibson said.
He's not a fan of foam sauces, a product of a cooking style loosely referred to as molecular gastronomy. It lacks the tactile sense Gibson believes is a crucial part of the eating experience.
"It was more of a novelty, and I see the foam sauce going away," Gibson said.
For the young cook, Gibson staunchly believes in paying attention.
"Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. When someone's showing you how to do something in the kitchen, listen to every word, and watch their hands," he said.
Gibson sees commercial cooking as being intellectually driven.
"You have to have a vast library of knowledge in your head to do this," he said. Gibson describes it as a "white collar job with tough blue collar working conditions."
"If you're all hat and no cowboy, you're not going to make it."
Essential ingredients & tools
Gibson’s kitchen must-haves include:
- A wood-burning grill--for steaks, beef, some fish, octopus, and vegetables
- Knives: Gibson has a working set of 7-8 knives, including chef, boning, paring, and slicing versions
- Vitamix blender
- Salt--kosher salt for cooking, and sea salt for finishing. Gibson’s current go-to finishing salt is Murray River pink salt
- Vinegar, or some type of acid
- Fresh herbs, like sage, chervil, and thyme, depending on what’s cooking
- Spices: star anise, cinnamon,
- fennel seed
What are the ingredients that give Gibson's food a little “something?” They are: Konbu, a type of seaweed (for extra flavor in stocks) and yuzu juice, his preferred citrus zing.
Jacque Pepin's books, La Methode and La Technique are Gibson's chief sources of inspiration.
"I still have the original books when they first came out," he said. "I was probably still doing pantry work then. These books changed my life in this business."
Gibson doesn't believe in quitting. It's that doggedness that inspires him to step up his game. He credits some of that tenacity to his mother, who at one time, not only raised her children by herself, but also carried a full work load.
"When things are hard and difficult, that's when I do my best work. I’m not only going to finish the work, I’m going to do it ten times over and beyond what anyone expects," Gibson said.
While some culinary aspirants may be inspired by celebrity chefs--or television shows about chefs that abound in recent popular culture--Gibson entered the cooking profession for the simple love of it.
"I dedicated myself to this because I loved it. It wasn’t cool to be a cook or a chef back then. I saw nothing in this that was going to make me famous, or a lot of money," Gibson said.
- RELATED: In the Kitchen with Matthew Buschle - Gibson is Buschle's inspiration.
Does Jimmy G. cook at home?
Not so much. His home dining methods are usually simple: Carry-out or delivery.
When he does cook, it’s likely a meal-in-a-bag that he can throw in a skillet.
“I don’t have a chef’s knife in my house. I only have butter knives,” Gibson said. If he has to cut something, he turns to his trusty pocket knife, an item that rarely leaves his side.
(All photos by G. Yek)
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek .