Have you ever met someone and thought to yourself “I am in the presence of excellence?” This past week I felt like I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with someone who was perfectly in their element, and truly brings more to the table than just food. I first met Chef Joseph Jacobsen in person while picking up my CSA at the end of the summer, although I have been to the Dégagé Jazz Cafe before I had never inquired about the person behind my dinner order. Chef Joseph is very passionate about the season-based and locally-sourced restaurant he orchestrates.
Chef Joseph wears many hats at Dégagé, his culinary home in Maumee, Ohio. Since he arrived in 2010, he has taken the heavily french inspired restaurant into the world of social media, put his stamp on the menu with elegant and artistic cuisine, giving the menu an ever-changing theme rich with southern influences. The most important revolution he has brought to Dégagé has been the focus on creating menus that use locally sourced ingredients, only to be served in their proper season. You will not find tomatoes on the current menu. Why? Because they are out of season in northwest Ohio. With that being said, he is also bringing back the art of preservation; ie: canning, pickling, utilizing the crop throughout the year.
Literally from farm-to-table, Chef Joseph likes to see where his food comes from; buchary to sauces, if it comes from his kitchen it comes from scratch. He’s not afraid to clean his own chickens, as messy as it can be. 90 percent of the foods and ingredients used at Dégagé are sourced from a location within a 50 mile radius. Despite the fact that to call something local means that it has to have traveled less than 100 miles, Joseph prefers to gather all he can from the closest farms possible. Riehm farms, Shared Legacy Farms, and Bittersweet farms are a few of the major sources, along with the Great Greens aquaponic indoor farm located in downtown Toledo. Farms like these provide the kitchen with fantastic local produce far superior in taste a quality to bulk suppliers. They can share the story of their product, how and when it was planted, creating a working relationship based on communication and trust. Chef Joseph appreciates the ability to go onto the land where the food comes from, giving him (and the farms) a sense of pride and satisfaction in feeding the people of the greater Toledo area.
Fresh ingredients are the foundation on which the changing menu is built. Chef Joseph keeps in close communication with his suppliers to not only get what he needs for the restaurant, but to find out what is being planted now in order to plan the following season’s offerings. Unless the ingredient is preserved in house, the meat and produce served at Dégagé is truly fresh. Seafood comes directly from a reliable fishery in the southern part of the United States, not imported or frozen after being processed in another country. It is actually possible to call the fishermen to ask about the crop. I can’t imagine many places can give you that amount of detail!
The staff at Dégagé put vast amounts of time and effort into creating menu items for all. They know how to create little waste by utilizing a whole animal, especially at special events like the previously held Snout to Tail, or Suds and Swine dinners. Yet, vegans and vegetarians get just as intricate and quality options as well. The vegan and vegetarian menus is also themed, and cultivated with as much time and creativity as the primary menu. Chef Joseph will pick a keynote vegetable that will be used throughout the night. It’s not about throwing together a salad, there are options. Staff also have the opportunity to come up with their own dishes and through a little competition, the winning creation can become the featured menu or theme item.
Dishes created at Dégagé come from vegetables that are a little crazy looking, not perfect like you find at the grocery store. They have bruises, dirt, and inventory is low because foods perish as they should. Eggs and produce require time and prep for cleaning. Knowing that most of the farms uses organic practices, there is no fear in using the entirety of the product. Potatoes are washed and scrubbed but not peeled before they are turned into mashed potatoes. Chef Joseph values the nutrients the food provides as much as the presentation. “It took people a long time to eat colored carrots,” he says when I asked if it’s ever a challenge to feed the average customer. But he doesn’t get offended when people are hesitant, he turns to education and familiarity. Many of the dishes on the menu are classic, comfort foods that most people could see frozen in boxes of freezer food at the grocery, but Chef Joseph takes them back to their original form, made as it should be.
Educating people on basic skills, techniques, and food practices is something Chef Joseph takes very seriously, but has fun doing. He offers many different cooking classes throughout the year, not on just how to prepare a dish, but even on how to shop at a grocery store. From a person who feels completely uneducated or unskilled in food, to the the advanced, anyone can jump right in and participate. He currently offers two classes per month, each with a different theme. Some classes focus on technique, others on education, but all are fun and exciting. Custom courses, and group classes give people the knowledge and confidence to bring whole foods to their own table. He is aware that we are busy people as a whole, so he aims to show how we can eat real food in the midst of our hectic schedules, as well as on a budget.
All of this opportunity in a building older than the city of Maumee itself. When I asked Chef Joseph if he was from the area and how he got started in the business he laughed. He was on summer break during college, packing up to start the fall semester at the University of Michigan Medical School when he decided to take his things, and move to New York City, never having seen the city before. He lived with family and attended the International Culinary Institute. He says that there are many people who are miserable in what they do day in and day out, so he decided to do what he is passionate about. He brought his skills and knowledge back home to the Toledo area to teach us how to go back to how we should be eating. Local, seasonal, real food. At the time he came back to his hometown, there was no restaurant like this in the area. He wanted to bring paletes back to life, and back from mass processed, nutrient deprived, chemically ridden foods. He desires to teach us how to eat seasonal and sustainable, for our own good, and the good of your community. Would you know how to eat or what to cook with if the grocery store couldn’t import fresh fruits and vegetables anymore? What if the droughts we hear about on the news came to the point that they impacted what you could find at the store, or the price you would have to pay for food? Would you know how to eat? It’s easier than you think and far more valuable to the health of you and your family to shop local.
I hope you take the next opportunity to check out this amazing chef through the restaurant or thought cooking classes.
Eat and Drink Local.