Special Interview with Chef Jeff Rossman
It recently tied for Best Cookbook, by the San Diego Book Awards Association, in the 17th annual San Diego Book and Writing Awards. Rossman is involved in food activism and advocacy in San Diego and, through his book, hopes to place focus on that as well as the importance of local farming.
The Chef owns his own bistro here in San Diego, Terra American Bistro, which is located in the East College District on 71st and El Cajon Blvd. His menu includes organic fruit and vegetables, fresh from local farmers, and meat from ranchers who practice humane animal husbandry.
SD Entertainer has been privileged with the opportunity of interviewing this brilliant advocate and chef. He has provided for us great insight on his story and his book’s story on cooking, local farming, and life. We give you his voice:
SDEntertainer: How long have you been cooking professionally?
JR: Basically since I was 14.
SDEntertainer: What inspired you to cook and become a Chef?
JR: My dad has a restaurant and I started there when I was 12. Kind of grew up in the food business for about 6 years. Got out of food business and into the hotel business for a few years. Then just kind of migrated back to food.
SDEntertainer: So you learned to cook through your dad?
JR: Actually it really wasn’t him. He wasn’t the cook per say. He was just the restaurant owner. Showed me how to do Deli sandwiches and wash dishes. Kind of showed me the ropes of the restaurant business. I kind of learned how to become a Chef on the job. Just working with different people. Reading a lot of magazines. Watching TV. Basically self-taught.
SDEntertainer: What has been your favorite dish or recipe to make?
JR: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean there are hundreds and hundreds over the years. One of my most favorite ones was doing a beer seared Salmon. Kind of like a Gravlax. Searing Salmon with beer and then serving it with smoked onion flan. Some of my favorite dishes come from experimentation and doing things for special projects. Not just a restaurant.
SDEntertainer: What inspired you to write your cookbook, “Terra’s Table”?
JR: I’ve been working a lot with a school garden. The principal had come to me. She actually visited the restaurant over in Hillcrest and introduced herself. She told me that she was a principal of Central Elementary School and she had a garden. She didn’t know what to do with it and she wanted to start an advisory board. So I started working with kids. I had started seeing and wanting some change to school food. So I have been with the County of San Diego. I have been working with certain organizations in town of their sect to try and change school food. I have been doing things at farmers markets, going to farmers markets big on local farms. Just kind of found out a lot of information about school gardens. About local farms and really wanted to write a book to let people know what was here in San Diego. A lot of people don’t really know that we have over two thousand farms in San Diego. A lot of people don’t know that San Diego was awarded a $16 million grant to help fight child obesity. So there was a motivation to try and let people know what was happening. There was a motivation to try and give easy recipes. Great photography. Wine and beer pairings. Just all came together. I wasn’t actually looking into writing a book. It was just the right time. I found somebody and they found me at the same time. A local publisher, Chef’s Press. That was good timing.
SDEntertainer: What kind of recipes does your cookbook specialize in?
JR: Mostly the stuff that we do here at the restaurant. Contemporary American using different produce throughout the book. The book is organized by different produce, fruits and vegetables. Different types of fruits: tree fruits, vine fruits, and vegetables, avocados, alliums, which are onion in the onion family. Some different recipes that have a characteristic in that genre.
SDEntertainer: Why did you sect certain recipes over others for the book?
JR: A lot of recipes I had already made at one point. Others from cooking classes. The book project was a really quick turnaround. It’s an expedited project. Instead of taking one to two years, it only took six months. So I really had to find things that would expedite the project. Having recipes that were already done or half done really helped. So I had to look through all the recipes I had already written that coincided with those chapter headings.
SDEntertainer: How does it feel having it tie for first in the 17th annual San Diego Book and Writing Awards in the category Best Cookbook?
JR: It feels great. I really like that. Like I said, we put together a really good product in six months. I had a really good team. The publisher being local I know helps immensely. A lot of my friends that have written cookbooks send their draft to a publishing house and then they don’t hear back for a year or two. Most of the time it’s completely different. You don’t have any say so in how it looks, what fonts, where the pictures are. So I had a lot of say so in the outcome of the book. I think that helped a lot.
SDEntertainer: Would you mind explaining more on the Terra American Cuisine?
JR: It’s basically Contemporary American cuisine just done Bistro style. By that I mean food that’s approachable on a daily basis. A lot of restaurants’ chefs that use same techniques, similar techniques, put out food that you wouldn’t consider dining on a daily basis. So the food that we do is a little bit more rustic. A little bit more approachable. Things that people would consider eating on a daily basis. We use the farm to table technique. That approach with the locals, using as much local produce as possible. I have my own herb garden here at the restaurant. We’re starting to grow our own tomatoes and vegetables on the roof. I got micro-garden now. Got my own garden here. They are all sustainably in season. Have hormone free beef. Cage free Chickens and eggs. We’re Eco-friendly. We recycle. We’re trying to start a composting program. We’re trying to do our part. That’s for sure.
SDEntertainer: What dish has been your patrons’ most recommended?
JR: One of the biggest is the Braised Pot Roast. That one and the Lobster Mac ‘N Cheese. Those are kind of tied. I’ve had Lobster Mac ‘N Cheese on the menu for about 10 years now. Those two are probably tied for the first for the most recommended entrees.
SDEntertainer: What do you like about organic food?
JR: For produce, I like local produce here in San Diego County and South Riverside County. As I wrote in my cookbook it’s a proven fact that if you eat…even with beef, milk, cheese, and everything … it’s a proven fact that if you eat or ingest products that are grown or harvested in your own environment then you’re less likely to have allergens and less likely to get sick. Just because you’re used to your environment. If you’re buying things from Chile, Mexico, there’s different soil content, there’s different allergens in the air, in the beef, the chickens, what have you. So I like that fact. I also like the fact that organics is true, it’s whole, it’s natural. Never use pesticides and growing compounds. And generally they have better flavor.
SDEntertainer: How did you make all these ties with the local farmers and ranchers?
JR: Some chef friends of mine put me in contact with a few. I called some people, some distributors in the produce business that buys from local farms. Just started calling and emailing. Went out to some of the farms for R&D for the book. We interviewed some farmers. Got their stories. We profiled some farms in the book. It was fun. It’s nice to know where your food comes from.
SDEntertainer: What do you like best about San Diego?
JR: In the food business and the produce business it’s nice because it has such a temperate climate that anything grows. Most anything. Most things grow year round. I grew up in San Diego. I like the people. I like the fact that there’s room to grow, as far as culinary speaking. San Diego has always been known as having less than great chefs and food. So we have that stigma. So it’s nice to be a part of something that’s growing and sharing with the rest of the world that we too have great food. It’s not just fish tacos and border food.
Photos courtesy of Terra American Bistro and Chef Jeff Rossman