NELLYSFORD — Ask Chef Chris Jack how he got into the culinary arts, and he’ll tell you it all started with capers.
A single encounter with the tiny, tart-tasting pickled flower buds led to a sudden realization that would turn him into a gastronomic go-getter: This was what he wanted his future to be all about.
Having been a grocery cake decorator, he already knew his way around a kitchen. But it wasn’t until he was served a restaurant dish with capers — ordered especially because he’d heard so much about them — that he decided he wanted to become a gourmet.
The journey that kicked off years ago has now landed Jack with a plum role, running the kitchen at Wild Wolf Brewing Co. in upper Nelson County, and garnered him a growing string of accolades in the gourmet world.
He says he’s even been approached a few times by the Food Network as a potential rising star.
Jack’s latest blue-ribbon dish? Pan-seared duck heart, spicy chocolate granola-crusted duck liver, sautéed oyster mushrooms with purple scallions, wilted arugula and spicy strawberry rhubarb jam.
It might not be for everyone’s palate, but therein may actually lie his secret weapon.
“I think I won because I took a bold move,” he said, referring to taking first place in the recent Tom Tom Founders Festival Iron Chef City Market Competition in Charlottesville.
“I wanted to go with something people don’t see. You can take organ meat and make something wonderful,” he said.
Jack seems to own a knack for creativity in the kitchen, said more than one person who has watched his career blossom.
“He’s not afraid to take swings on things,” said James Harris, a chef and caterer in Staunton whom Jack described as a mentor. “If you give him the opportunity, he’s probably going to think of something you haven’t thought of before.”
Jack said he likes to try new things even if they might never end up on the regular menu.
As just one example, offal, an organ meat in the culinary parlance, can wind up in some groundbreaking plates.
Jack remembered how he bought half a pig and wanted to try some breakfast palate-pleasers with offal just for the staff to taste.
“It was the best bite of breakfast I’d ever had,” he said.
The meat was served with scrambled eggs and demi-glace mushrooms on brioche. Another creation was a soufflé of smoked gouda and offal.
Such ideas don’t always end up as suggested plates for patrons, but they do help spur the creative spirit that Jack sees as central to kitchen success.
Jack, 40, has taken a circuitous route to this point in his professional life.
His earliest work was as a plumber for 15 years, mostly new home work, while living in Richmond. When the housing market tanked between 2008 and 2009, so did his prospects for new work, so he began working as a cake decorator at Kroger. It was his earliest foray into culinary art.
When he decided to start cooking, he “applied and applied and applied” at Byers Street Bistro in Staunton, landed a job and soon was running the line.
Later he worked with Harris at Zynodoa Restaurant, also in Staunton, and again for him at The Georges, in Lexington.
“He was the guy who mentored me,” Jack said. “He honed my skills.”
Harris called his protégé “a really impressive guy” who has always struck him as having a way with both food and people.
Cooking is only one thing a chef has to worry about, he said.
“There’s so many other things going on and they can be stressful,” but Jack can handle the full spectrum, Harris said. “It’s nice to have someone who can know what needs to be done and do it. He brought a fantastic attitude to things.”
“He picked it up like a bird taking flight,” Harris added.
Jack would work again at Zynodoa as a sous chef and interim head chef before joining Wild Wolf in 2015.
Since arriving, he has amped up his career with what he hopes are new and inventive flourishes. He also set out to run the kitchen at top efficiency; for example, instead of grilling a full chicken breast for 20 minutes to make a sandwich, he decided to use chicken tenders that cook in eight minutes.
One of Wild Wolf’s key philosophies is to pioneer the farm-to-fork trend, and Jack is doing everything he can to capitalize on it. As the concept goes, the production and use of food are integrated to help the environment and community.
“The most important thing is his incredible passion for farm-to-fork; that is a part of our mission,” said Mary Wolf, owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Co. “He’s probably one of the more creative chefs I’ve ever met.”
For now, Jack is focused on novel menu items and a solid commitment to quality, environmentally conscious cuisine.
“What I’m trying now is to upscale some of the items,” he said, so patrons can enjoy the range of selections from “everyday comfort food to going home and saying, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’”
Wistfully, he wishes some of the people who inspired him in cooking, particularly his late paternal grandmother, could see what he has achieved.
“It was every Sunday, our family meal was at their house,” he said. “It was always a huge spread of food.”
Those were some of his earliest, fondest memories of food, he said. “I wish I had found my passion for this much sooner.”
It only takes a second’s glance at the tattooed letters that appear on eight of Jack’s knuckles to figure out just how deep that passion runs: POTS and PANS.