Chef Jay McCarthy Interview

He's been called the "most creative chef in San Antonio" by Mary Mahaffey, President of the Heart of Texas Specialty Foods in Austin.

He was voted "Best Chef in San Antonio" by readers of the San Antonio "Current".

He was named Alamo City's Best Chef in 1994, and won the Critic's Choice Award at the 1994 Texas Hill Country Food And Wine Festival.

Food writers agree he's one of the most promising young chefs on the American Food scene.

He's a frequent guest on T.V. cooking shows and sought after celebrity judge for all kinds of charity events.

He's the author of Traveling Jamaica with Knife, Fork and Spoon, A Righteous Guide to Jamaican Cookery (Crossing Press).

He's called the "Cactus King" because of his use of cactus in margaritas.

He calls his tropical cooking style — "Caribbean Rim Cuisine."

He is currently the Executive Chef of Cascabel Restaurant in San Antonio, one of only 132 recipients of the AAA's 4 Diamond Rating.

He is Chef Jay McCarthy and he talked at length with us about his distinguished career.

Q. You spent a good deal of time on your fami­ly's 1,000 acre plantation in Jamaica. Would it be fair to say you come from a well-to-do back­ground?
A. Not really. My cousin had that plantation. That was kind of my Aunt and Uncle's. We would go down and spend weekends there. I didn't live there. I didn't live in the main house. But, we went down there on weekends pretty regularly, two weekends a month. They had seven live-in servants. We would sit down to those meals, 14 or 16 of us, and there would always be a ham, and a turkey, and a chicken, and a bunch of cakes and pies. I just fig­ured when I was 12 or 13 that this was the way everyone lived. I lived with my mom in a nice house with my brothers and sisters, but no where near as spacious as the plantation house.

Q. When it came to math, physics, and chem­istry, you really excelled. You were accepted at both M.I.T. and Stanford.
A. Yeah.

Q. You pursued engineering at Texas A and M University for 5 years. Yet, you chose a cooking career over an engineering career.
A. I had a really good time doing the engineering thing. The problem is with most college work study pro­grams, I had a certain amount of time. I ran the aero­space engineering shop. I would do welding and help grad student’s work on projects, run machine lathes, and things like that. But, the money allotted for that you could say was basically poverty level, and I needed extra money. So I started cooking a little bit. There was one senior class that I helped grad students for 3 years, through this class. It's a 2 semester class that you make projects for the Bendix Corp. So, I helped design wind­mills, helped design a probe for the Martian atmosphere, and I helped work on the Space Shuttle when they had the problems with the tiles falling off. When I was get­ting ready to take that class myself, I got an opportunity to go to Boeing on a senior co-op, which is kind of a work study thing. I went up to Boeing to do it, and I worked with seven guys. One of the deals was, they had a $100 million dollar satellite project they were working on, and they'd come to the end of their funding, and had applied for more, and were denied funding. This was in the week previous to my arrival. So, I'm dealing with guys who are real depressed about their situation. So, I kind of decided I don't really want to pursue some endeavor where I could put that much time and effort into it, and not see it come to fruition. At that point I was kinda thinking o.k. what kind of options do I really have here? There weren't so many. I'd been cooking a little bit, and I definitely liked traveling. So, that's what happened. I traveled a little bit, cooked at a couple of different places, and ended up with my Dad in New York for a little while.

Q. Would you say you have to use more brain power in cooking than engineering?
A. Ooh. I would definitely say they're both very simi­lar. You have to pay attention to an enormous amount of details. They both require a great understanding of basic fundamental rules and laws. They both require attention to many minute details in order to make a project come together, whether it’s a sauce or a building or a plane. I wouldn’t say one is harder than the other. I just think it's a different focus.

Q. You say that early on, you were taught never to follow recipes, but instead to cook to taste.
A. Aah, yes.

Q. What's the difference? Explain that.
A. (Laughs). I wished I worked for this guy longer. His name was Pete Bouras. He was Greek. He worked in his father's kitchen in Dallas, from when he was like 4 years old. When I met him he was in his early 40's. Just an incredible chef. At that point in time I was learning very rudimentary, fundamental things. He saw me always studying these cookbooks. He goes, 'You shouldn't be studying those things.' I'm like, “What are you talking about? I want to learn how to do these things.” He said, “You need to use it as a guide to the fun­damentals, but you need to taste everything as you do it.” I kinda looked at him like well; obviously you've had one beer too many today and don't know what you're talking about. Then one day we had a crisis in the kitchen where a bread delivery didn't make it. The baker had put a bunch of bread in, and burned it all up. We were doing a major brunch. Pete Bouras, the chef comes out and grabs these two fifty pound sacks of flour, and gets a big 'ole thing of yeast and starts throwing it in this 60 quart mixer. He added the flour in. Before he added anything else, he tasted the flour. He added some salt and tasted it. He added some yeast and he tasted it and then he added some of this other kind of flour and tasted it. Then he added some rye and tasted it. Then, he finished it with a little bit of salt, and added water and tasted it. Then he made the spread and it was some of the most incredible bread I'd ever had. It was seeing him do this knowing that he did not measure one iota but was tast­ing each ingredient and it's affect on the whole, as he was doing it that kind of made me think, well, maybe he does know what he's talking about. The other thing he told me is if you do it by taste, you'll always remember the taste, but if you do it by recipe you'll never remember if it was a teaspoon or a tablespoon, or you might just forget a whole ingredient. By assembling it by taste, you're able to remember it a whole lot easier. You know, taste is one of the only senses that doesn't diminish with age.

Q. And you're in the business...
A. Where taste is a big deal.

Q. Did you ever attend one of those cooking schools?
A. No I didn't. After being at A and M for eight years and all the time and effort that went into that, I didn't really have the ten or twenty thousand dollars a year to go to cooker's school for a couple of years, nor could I really qualify for financial aid for them. What I did was, I found some chefs that I really liked what they were doing and I worked for 4 different chefs for about 2 years a piece, as a sous. I never wanted to be a chef, I just wanted to be the sousha 'cause they actually do all the cooking. I worked with one guy who was a fifth genera­tion German chef. I worked with another gentleman who was an Austrian, Swiss trained chef, one of the youngest certified ever, in Palm Beach Florida. I worked with Bruce Auden here in San Antonio who got voted one of the top ten chefs in the country by Food and Wine in '86. I worked with Charles Weber out of Chicago, not to men­tion Pete Bouras. Those chefs all had their affect on me. Charles Weber was kind of a young guy like me and my experience was kind of Texas and Florida and his experi­ence was kind of Chicago and California. So we worked together on this restaurant in Palm Beach where we got to bring all of our experiences together, and we just had a blast. We did just some great things. We changed the menu everyday. We would mix and match some of his ideas whether it was a sauce, or a relish, or an entree, or some of my things. We would come up with these great combinations and flavors. We got voted Best Restaurant of the Year in Palm Beach.

Q. Did you get a lot of famous people at your restaurant?
A. We had wild people come in our restaurant. We had people like Ted Kennedy, Roxanne Pulitzer. She used to come in all the time.

Q. Did Ted Kennedy ever come into the kitchen to compliment you?
A. No. We met him one night. He was wearing panty­hose and running through the place.

Q. Wearing pantyhose?
A. Yeah. On his head. That was pretty funny.

Q. That's not a picture I would conjure up of Ted Kennedy.
A. Well, he'd had a few.

Q. Yeah, I guess so.
A. John Derek came in there a couple of times. We had some fun people in there.

Q. You had your own restaurant in the Pocono’s. What happened to that?
A. Yeah, I did. Just as I was leaving college that was the point of decision time. I had worked at a restaurant in college called 'Backstage', with a friend of mine. His father had owned a hotel in Germany during the War and when it broke out, he lost it. His mom's mission for him was always to have a restaurant. So, she bought him this restaurant in the Pocono’s. It cost a half a mil­lion bucks. He didn't have much operating capital to start with. He said 'Do you want to help me run this place?' I said, 'Sure, I'd love to. Why not?' So we had a place to live and a small wage and we got to basically set a kitchen up, and do what we wanted to do. Amazingly hard work, but quite the learning experience. After about a year, I realized I knew a lot about cooking but I didn't know enough about the business of cooking. I was like 23 at the time.

Q. By the business of cooking you mean what?
A. By making profit, how to set your food costs up, how to promote yourself, how to increase your business, keep your guests really happy, things like that. There's a lot more to running a restaurant than cooking food.

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