David Payne, exec chef of Jelly, on losing your authority, Rick Bayless and gross sticky goo
This is part one of my interview with David Payne, executive chef of Jelly Cafe; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
My mom," sighs David Payne, "wasn't a good cook. At all." Peppers -- green bells -- cemented with ground meat and rice were a "full-on special dinner at the Payne house," he recalls, and his parents, who still live in San Antonio, the city where he grew up, consider Olive Garden a top-drawer restaurant. "For them, it's fine dining, and they love it, and that's okay, because my parents are great," says the 41-year-old chef of Jelly Cafe, a duo of quirky breakfast-and-lunch joints that couldn't be more different from the childhood chains he frequented -- and worked in.
His career path began at Denny's, where he started as a server before being poached by a fellow server, who enticed him to leave behind the Grand Slam and move up to managing a Schlotzsky's Deli. "I have mad math skills, and apparently she noticed it, so she hired me, at eighteen, to run a deli," he says. And while he was smearing mayonnaise on sandwiches (and crunching numbers), he began to like the idea of cooking. "I kinda decided that cooking was cool, but I knew, too, that if I wanted to cook, I'd need to do more than be the manager of a little sandwich shop," he says.
So he gave his notice and got a line-cook gig at the Marriott Riverwalk Hotel in San Antonio, and by the time he left, four years later, he was supervising the kitchen during dinner service. But Payne, who'd never ventured from the Lone Star State, was restless, and when a few friends suggested an extended road trip to San Francisco, he stuffed his suitcase and left.
Less than two weeks after arriving in San Francisco, he landed a breakfast stint at the famed Rick & Anne's restaurant in Berkeley, the breakfasts of which have generated a cult-like following. And for Payne, it was the perfect job. "I learned how to cook amazing breakfasts, and I loved every minute on the line. And while I was working there, I realized that there were some really great restaurants that did things from scratch -- plus, this was a place that was run by owners who had a vision that was way ahead of the curve," he says, pointing out that his menu at Jelly includes the popular red-flannel hash, a signature dish of Rick & Anne's. "That experience was a lesson in doing things right, whether I knew it or not, and to this day, it's still one of the best places I've ever worked."
Unlike Las Vegas, he says, which is where he went after two years in San Francisco. "I was young and I wanted adventure, and a friend was moving to Vegas, so I figured I'd give it a try," he recalls. He was part of the opening team of a Marriott hotel -- one without a casino that catered to a business clientele -- and the gamble didn't pay off. "Las Vegas was a letdown in every way," Payne says.