Jason Vincent: King of Pork & Parenthood

Jason Vincent rose from the ashes of his own semi-retirement to make a cameo appearance on the nail-biting Tom Thumb episode of A CHEF’S LIFE, which aired as a two-parter in season two. At what some called the height of his career, Jason exited his role as Executive Chef at Chicago’s renowned Nightwood Restaurant to tackle the ultimate gig of full-time father. As of late, he's been raising a toddler while tweeting and instagramming (quite humorously, in fact) about food and sports. Before leaving Nightwood in April 2014, Jason amassed a long-winded list of honors. Food and Wine named him Best New Chef of 2013 and he was crowned the 2012 King of Porc at Aspen’s Grand Cochon Food and Wine event where he delivered a heartfelt and expletive-laden acceptance speech.

In the following interview, Jason offers insight into his life as a chef and a dad, each with thoughtful introspection and a sizable dose of the funnies.

You've been labelled the "Prince of Pork." Folks in eastern North Carolina pride themselves in knowing good pork. Can you tell us what makes good pork and which region's barbecue you prefer?
Um, actually, it’s “king of pork.” No biggie. I have to admit that I’ve never been very good at keeping track of the different styles of barbecue and the regions which they represent, so if I offend anyone, it probably won’t be the last time.I’m a huge fan of cooking pork (and beef, chicken, vegetables, fish, and anything else) correctly. There’s always room for experimentation, but for barbecued pork, the key is a choosing a good cut that has lots of different muscle textures, getting a good, salty rub on it, and cooking it slow enough to break down the connective tissue, but not so long that it dries out. I also think that the sauce that accompanies the bbq is just as much a measure of pride as the meat, but should be served on the side. I feel that it’s cheating if the two are mixed together. They should both be amazing, but also need to be able to stand on their own. Also, nothing should ever be smoked over hickory. It tastes like a desperate attempt to get flavor into an un-flavorful hog.

We know you took some time away from the kitchen to enjoy fatherhood. Can you talk about that transition a bit and explain what it's like to juggle the demanding, fast-paced life of a chef with the different-but-equally fast paced demands of fatherhood?
That’s a tough one to explain. I’m not even sure I understand it entirely. Taking a break from the restaurant at what was probably the height of my career was a huge gamble. Would everyone forget about me? If I open a new place will anyone care? But those questions are exactly why it was important to do it. Being around for the first year of my new daughter’s life, and being the father that I should have always been to my oldest, shouldn’t have to be a gamble. My wife is an absolute angel, my kids are amazing (mostly), and getting to spend this time with them is something that will keep me thinking about how important family really is when I do open a place and it’s my responsibility to look after the welfare of my employees. Family first, restaurant second. I have a feeling that the other way around isn’t the kind of person or boss or father that I want to be.

Our viewers would love to know more about your relationship with Vivian. Could you talk about how y'all met? Also, what do you appreciate her about approach to cooking?
Vivian was in Chicago because her restaurant had suffered a major fire and they were rebuilding. She called and asked if she could stage at the place I was working and I said yes. We chatted a little while we were prepping and I was realizing that she knew way more about cooking than she had let on. We finished prep and I thought that she would gain way more knowledge (and relieve more stress) by sitting at the bar with a glass of wine and letting us feed her. We talked about all of the dishes and became friends that day.

Vivian and Ben are the kind of people that I aspire to be. I wish I was as calm, humble, and patient as they are. The world (and the restaurant industry) needs more people like them.

What do you think are the differences in cooking in a major metropolis like Chicago vs a small town like Kinston? Is it difficult to secure farm-direct produce in the city?
There are huge seasonal challenges in Illinois, just like everywhere else. I’m very lucky to have great friends who are also extremely dedicated farmers. Seasonality just becomes another part of the menu planning. Just like any other time or place…you know what you’re going to have and you use it wisely.

Also, Chicago may be a huge city, but it’s still the Midwest. I like to think that we’re “asleep in the trees.” Surrounded by agriculture and farmland, but if you don’t wake up to notice it you could miss it, and that would be a shame.

Can you talk about your experience working with Vivian at Southern Foodways Luncheon as well as any 'behind-the-scenes' memories you might have from the episode?
The first thing Vivian said to me when I got to Oxford was, “so, I have this tv show”…huh? “yeah, they’re really good at staying out of the way, don’t worry.”
It was a really great experience. Vivian and Ben were so prepared for the whole thing. You could tell that Vivian had been thinking about that lunch for a long, long time. I’m sorry there’s no dirt that I know of. I did get far too drunk with Andy and Michael from Memphis after the lunch, but that’s not the first time that that’s happened.

Anything we should look forward to from you? Anything you'd like to share with our viewers?
I can’t wait to cook for you all again. Don’t worry, it won’t be long. ☺

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(Photo by Jacob Hand)