Jeremy Kittelson, chef of Ambria, on trends, Taco Bell and eyeballs
This is part one of my chef and tell interview with Jeremy Kittleson, exec chef of Ambria. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Before Jeremy Kittelson opened Ambria in mid-November, he conducted a tasting, and while he was visibly excited about most of what he'd prepared, he was sheepish about the carrot salad. "I don't know how well this is going to fly...I don't think it will," he warned his cooks. But the chef's hesitation was unfounded; it's now one of his signature dishes.
"I love that salad because it's so unique, but you just never know how people are going to respond," says Kittelson, who faced a completely different reaction when he made his first batch of cookies as a kid in Decorah, Iowa. "Both of my grandmothers were really, really good cooks who did absolutely everything from scratch, and I wanted to be involved in the cooking process, so when I was around six, I decided to bake my own cookies by throwing a bunch of different things together, and they were terrible -- harder than a rock and not exactly well received."
But the cookie disaster didn't frighten Kittelson out of the kitchen. Several years later, when he was a busser in a Greek restaurant where "they loved lighting the cheese on fire," he discovered that he really loved the restaurant industry. "Once you get into a certain line of work that you really like, it's easy to stay there," he says, "so I worked in restaurants all throughout high school, up until I went to college." He eventually dropped out "to go back into the restaurant world," he admits, and sharpen his knives in culinary school.
He graduated from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 2000 and then took off for Chicago, hoping to secure a gig at Le Francais, a then-prominent French restaurant that bid adieu in 2007. But when Kittelson learned that he'd be working for pence, he scrapped the idea and instead landed in the kitchen of Vong, working for one of the most revered chefs in the world: Jean-Georges Vongerichten. "It was a life-changing, inspirational and rewarding experience, and I had the good fortune to work with a chef who had been at Charlie Trotter's for ten years, as well as several Top Chef contestants, including Stephanie Izard," recalls Kittelson. It was a kitchen, he says, where "everything mattered -- everything had to be perfect -- and that made my career feel important."
He departed after Vong changed its concept, snagging a full-time spot on the dinner line at Blackbird, the "biggest break of my career," Kittelson says, noting that the popular Chicago food temple "has as good of a reputation as any restaurant in America -- it's as high as it can be -- and that restaurant has carried me throughout my career." By the time he left, nearly four years later, he'd been promoted to the sous-chef position, and while it was difficult to let go, Kittelson was ready to move up the ranks, to an exec-chef spot at Tapawingo, a restaurant in northwest Michigan. "The guy before me was a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef winner, I was working with a master sommelier, and it's still one of the fondest experiences I've had in my career," says Kittelson.