Cooking for fun during his high school years launched Jeff Schwenker into a culinary career. Well, that and a push from his mother when he dropped out of college.
He wound up attending Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis. He graduated in 2008, then traveled to Portland where he worked at a restaurant called Paley’s Place. He credits this experience with providing a real foundation of cooking.
He moved back to Minneapolis in 2010 where he got a job at the Dakota Jazz Club. Except for an 8 month stint living in Missoula, Montana, he spent the next few years working around Minneapolis, trying to get into as many kitchens as possible to learn new things. His most recent gig was at Nighthawks before moving to Rochester in June. He now works at The Loop.
Schwenker feels very fortunate that something he once enjoyed as a hobby could evolve to work from which he can make a living. At the same time, his career as a chef has evolved to include more than just making food – he also feels responsible for “making people happy and moved, and brought together through food.”
Schwenker thrives on the culinary demand for continuous learning. “There is never enough you can learn in this industry, and when you do you’ll get passed by,” he says.
That said, the most enjoyable aspect of what he does remains hands-on cooking. Admittedly, the hours can be long, so trying to find a balance and avoiding feeling guilt about not being at work is an ongoing struggle.
He’s coined his style of cooking a “borderless American cuisine; hearty comfort food.” He likes big, bold flavors, and will incorporate any ingredient in a dish if he feels it is useful.
Schwenker likes the technique and refined flavors of French food, the hot chilies and bold flavors of Mexican food, the loud flavors of Korean food with its attendant kimchis and fermented pastes, and the subtlety of Japanese food. Then there are those times when the German and Norwegian in him come out and he incorporates flavors from classic dishes in these cuisines. If asked to describe the dishes he typically creates, “modernized comfort food” seems fitting.
Schwenker finds himself constantly reading culinary material in his spare time. He loves to read cookbooks and to follow food news on various websites, Instagram, and Twitter. Staying in contact with friends and former coworkers provides additional insight into the ever-changing culinary landscape.
His five essential kitchen tools? A chef’s knife, a steel or sharpening stone, lemon juice or any sort of acid component, fish sauce, and any ingredients with chilis or heat. A sixth addition to that list – fats of any kind, from canola to beef fat.
He sees more diversity in the Twin Cities than in Rochester as far as restaurants go.
“I think people have a little more courage to open something specific, and not something to try and please everyone.” He also saw a lot more chef-driven restaurants in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area than here. There is also constant coverage and a barrage of updates on food and restaurants in the cities.
At the same time, Schwenker believes that Rochester is “on the up” as a food city goes. Food offerings are expanding here, and people are becoming less afraid to vary from the established norm.