Seventeen years old and a matter of hours after high school graduation I applied to cook at Naya Bistro and Wine Bar. My only experience in a kitchen was with my mother and a short stint slinging burritos at Qdoba. I loved food and cooking, and was determined to get a job at a nice restaurant.
I walked into the restaurant without an appointment asking to speak with the Head Chef. The host met my inquiry with a disapproving gaze. She hurried back to the kitchen and, a few moments later returned, “Chef will be out in a moment, you can take a seat at the bar if you like.”
After what felt like an eternity, an agitated looking man in whites met me at the bar. “So you want cook in my kitchen? What kind of experience do you have?” I replied as honestly as I could, telling him that I really didn’t have any. “Well, have you at least gone to school?”, he asked. I told him I had graduated high school the night before, but intended to enroll at the Secchia Institute at summer’s end. Clearly annoyed with my naivety, he asked “What business I thought I had walking into a professional kitchen expecting a job with absolutely no experience?”. Slightly shaken, I told him that “I loved food, and had hoped to find a Chef willing to take a chance on me”. He put an end to the conversation saying that they were fully staffed at the moment and not looking for help, especially from an untrained kid.
I left defeated, and convinced I wouldn’t be able to find a job before college started. This was my first interaction with Chef Jason Knickerbocker. A hard man, with a strong culinary background, very much entrenched in the old school ways of running a kitchen.
The next afternoon while out applying at other restaurants in town, I received a call from an unknown number. I answered, only to hear Chef Jay on the other end telling me that one of his cooks had been arrested and that he needed someone in tonight. He would be willing to take a chance on me if I could make it there in the next hour.
So began my culinary career. Jay taught me everything I know about cooking. He took me under his wing and pushed me to learn more. He talked me out of culinary school and instilled the importance of the grind. Everything had to be earned through hard work and dedication. I fell in love with restaurants under his mentorship.
Naya ended up closing a couple of years later, but Jay and I worked together in multiple restaurants until this past October when my mentor and friend unexpectedly passed away. Now, at the helm of my own kitchen, I wanted to pay homage to the man who taught me so much. My General Manager, Peter, suggested we put a dish on and donate the proceeds to a cause Jay was passionate about.
Fly fishing on the Pere Marquette River was something Jay truly loved, and I can’t think of a better way to honor his legacy, than by donating the proceeds from a dish he taught me to make, to a cause so dear to his heart. One of the first things I cooked in his restaurant over a decade ago was so simply delicious. Flash fried calamari with kalamata olives, lemon, and skorthalia sauce. It was a dish Jay had made as a young cook in Seattle and he brought it back with him to Grand Rapids out of nostalgia.
For the entire month of September we will be running this dish as a tribute to my friend, and we will be donating the proceeds to the Pere Marquette Trout Unlimited Foundation.
– Luke VerHuist, Executive Chef, Reserve Wine & Food