Michelle Brown in the kitchen at Jags Steak and Seafood in West Chester, where she is executive chef. (Photo by G. Yek)
WEST CHESTER, Ohio - 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.
Game on. Michelle Brown, who played sports in her youth, runs her operation with the tactical mastery of a coach and the precision of a mathematician. She is the executive chef and part owner of Jag's Steak and Seafood, a highly acclaimed fine dining restaurant in West Chester.
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"Use real thought, real care, and do things right. Every person involved has to care, not just me. When I interview people, I ask them if they play sports. I look for that passion for food and appreciation for teamwork."
Game on. This chef, who played sports in her youth, runs her operation with the tactical mastery of a coach and the precision of a mathematician. She is the executive chef and part owner of Jag's Steak and Seafood , a fine dining restaurant in West Chester.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Brown was shooting for a math degree at the University of Cincinnati when she discovered the restaurant world.
"My parents said if you want spending money in college, you have to get a job," Brown said. She found work as a valet at what was then The Bankers Club.
Brown's first day on the job changed everything.
"I clocked in down in the kitchen, and looked around. I saw toques and white jackets. I had never been in a commercial kitchen in my life," Brown said. She walked up to the chef and said, "My name is Michelle Brown. I got hired as a valet, but this is where I want to work."
It took a few months of persistence before the chef, Jon York, hired her. Brown was making good money as a valet, and her move to the kitchen cut her pay by half.
"My parents said, 'What are you thinking?'" Brown said. "But I told them I really wanted to do this."
While in college, the kitchen was Brown's "other classroom." When she graduated, she moved to San Francisco and got a job at Planet Hollywood. It was an ethnically diverse kitchen, but she was the only female cook.
Brown rapidly moved up: from cook to corporate trainer, then to sous chef, and finally to executive chef.
"I really learned how to manage a high-volume kitchen. We had rules and structure so that we could deliver consistently," Brown said.
After more than four years, Brown returned to Cincinnati as the executive chef at Beckett Ridge Country Club in West Chester. It was during a high profile event that she met John Allgaier , who was forming a team to open a steakhouse.
That was eleven years ago. Today that steakhouse is Jag's Steak and Seafood. It is a respected name in the upper echelon of fine dining, and Brown is a figure many look up to.
"I have a lot of women who work for me, and I'm proud to be able to show them you can manage it," Brown said. "It’s been a man’s career for a long time, but I think times are changing."
Brown has a five-year-old, and is expecting her second child. Her husband is also in the restaurant business. Brown acknowledges it's helpful to be married to someone who understands the demands of the industry.
Brown has mentored more than fifty culinary students at Jag's.
"I teach them you’re going to be given opportunities in life. It's what you do with those opportunities that are going to make you successful," she said.
Food and cooking philosophy
"Cook from your heart, and really care. I truly care about the way food tastes. There is something to be said for that special ingredient, love. It goes a long way."
Brown is adamant about using correct preparation and cooking techniques.
"I explain to a lot of young line cooks that cooking is like playing an instrument. You don't just turn the heat on high and cook," she said. "Each pan has to be played like an instrument, it goes up and down. You play with the temperatures, flames and knobs. Everything is done at a different level."
Essential ingredients & tools
Brown's kitchen must-haves include:
“I always want the best of the best,” Brown said. For example, she buys fresh wasabi root instead of the powder form, and sources only the highest quality meats and seafood. (Pictured below: The raw bar at Jag's)
Jon York, the chef who gave Brown her start, continues to inspire her. York, who Brown now regards as a lifetime mentor and friend, was the quintessential professional she looked up to when she first started in the business.
Food and the people who eat it inspire Brown.
"I really enjoy eating food at every level, from a simple avocado to a complex dish," she said. "I have a servant’s heart. I enjoy taking care of people. I like to take care of guests. It makes me tick and makes me who I am," she said.
"I cook on the line every single day. I don’t expo; I've never have been an expo chef. I like to be in the trenches." (Pictured below: The dining room bar at Jag's)
Favorite meal to cook for family: Peppered filet over fettuccini alfredo
with bacon-infused spinach
Brown looks to simple comfort food when she fires up the stove at home.
“When you’re in this business, you just want something simple,” she said. Brown has a particular fondness for this recipe during her pregnancy.
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek .