One of Austin’s most famous restaurant owner and chef, Jack Gilmore, of Jack Allen’s Kitchen and Salt Traders, made some time recently to talk about how he developed his passions and provide a ton of great insight for those looking to pursue the culinary arts. In just a brief amount of time, we could tell that Jack was the real deal. He not only gave his best to our students who had the privilege of cooking with him, but he also opened up about his story and made it obvious as to why he is one of the best in his trade.
Catalyst: Part of what we do at Catalyst is help young people find their unique gifts and passions in life. So, how did you first know that cooking was a passion?
Jack: I got thrown in a kitchen when I was sixteen...And I said, this is kind of cool. Growing up I just knew food, I got hooked on the bug and the bug sent me to Austin and I worked with some incredible chefs throughout my whole career. That's kind of the way it happened.
Catalyst: So, you have a passion for it?
Jack: It's a bug.
Catalyst: How did you develop this [bug] into a talent?
Jack: Well, I don't think I'm talented, even to this day, enough to be where I'm at.
Catalyst: And that gives us all hope because I still burn toast, so how do you get to where you are today?
Jack: It's like every day I go home and I think, how could that of been better? How could that meal have been better? So, you go to the next day and go to work and say, I'm going to out do what I did yesterday. Now I haven't had the perfect day yet in my whole career. Perfect means great timing, perfect food, this, that, you got your water on time, you got your wine on time, steak is cooked perfect… I have never had a perfect day --- but I'm going after it.
Catalyst: How did you come up with the idea, specifically, for Jack Allen's?
Jack: My partner and I, Todd, worked together for twenty years and he was the best front of the house person I have ever known. I was the best back of the house person he has ever known and he just said one day; ‘man I'm done, let's open a restaurant.’ So we opened Jack Allen's Kitchen.
Catalyst: How many years were you in the industry before you opened up your own restaurant?
Jack: Forty years.
Catalyst: What is the process of creating a dish, coming up with something new?
Jack: You know it's a little bit of everything. So, number one, we have really - really good people working for us, incredible people. Some people have been with us for twenty-five years from our previous jobs and some people have been with us for fifteen, ten, so they know what we want. It’s just a matter of listening to the guests, understanding the guest, and giving them what they want.
Catalyst: Take me to a moment where you realized that all the hard work, all the being on your feet, the back issues, the shoulder issues, all that kind of grind, the long hours, it was worth it.
Jack: It was day one, day one opening in Oak Hill and we had no idea what we were doing.
Catalyst: What is your advice to others on how to really succeed in this industry?
Jack: If you're in it to be on Food Network or Chopped or whatever, you're in the wrong business. My deal is to be humble, listen to your guests, have no ego. Ego gets checked at the back door. When I come in, I have zero ego, I just go in and take care of guests. Walk through the restaurant and talk to people, our staff knows that we touch each table, we ask them how everything was and get them what they want.
Catalyst: If you were to get in a time machine, travel back in time, what advice would you give your sixteen-old self?
Jack: When I first got married I had three jobs, I was a cook, I served room service at a Hilton and I did yard work. Be ready to work hard, have no ego, be humble and listen to the people around you.
Catalyst: What are your thoughts on culinary school? For a young person starting out is that the best way to go or are there alternative ways?
Jack: Here's how I did it with my son. He got to open up six restaurants with me all over the country right out of High School. He was eighteen years old and he said, I don't know what I'm going to do. I said, you don't need to know what you got to do when you're eighteen, so let's just hit the road and let's open some restaurants. So, he got the bug and then he said, dad should I go to culinary school? And I said, yeah, you're ready. I didn't go to culinary school, but no matter what you do, you have to work with somebody who is really, really talented that's going to teach you and then you move on. I told him, where ever you go, learn what you can from them and then move on. So, he did that. He worked with the most talented, best chefs in the country and that's why he's where he's at today. I worked with some incredible people instead of going to culinary school. I got lucky because I was in Fredericksburg working with a German master chef.
Catalyst: For people in Austin who have yet to come to Jack Allen's Kitchen or Salt Trader's, what's the one thing that you think they should order?
Jack: Man, you're putting me on the spot. I have two kids and I don't have a favorite one. I have four or five restaurants and I don't have a favorite one. I have thirty-five or forty menu items on the menu, I don't have a favorite one but there is a reason it’s on the menu, because I like them all.