At age 56, chef Jimmy Gibson of Jimmy G’s is at an age where most chefs have hung up their tongs and high-tailed it out of the kitchen for a cushier life as either restaurateur or the occasional expeditor. But not Gibson.
The Pennsylvania native arrived in Cincinnati in 1989 when hospitality industry executive Carl Bruggemeier brought him in to be the executive chef at The Phoenix downtown. After a little more than a year, he left to start the Ciao Baby Restaurant Group, and after expanding into Washington D.C. and New York City returned to Cincinnati to begin a 16 year on-again, off-again stint with the Jeff Ruby Restaurant Group, mostly as its corporate chef.
In December of 2011, Gibson opened Jimmy G’s downtown, combining the best of his skills into a menu featuring huge, succulent, wood-fired hunks of aged beef, as well as internationally inspired dishes with an eclectic twist. We recently sat down with Gibson to get some words of wisdom about his longevity in the business, his knack for keeping up with the younger chefs and the right way to grill a steak.
CityBeat: You’re probably the only person in town at your age on the line every single night. Why?
Jimmy Gibson: I don’t know. I like it.
CB: What do you like about it?
JG: I love playing with the food. Sometimes I don’t like it. Sometimes I’m like, “Fuck. Why am I still here when I could be like those other guys?” But I can’t be like those other guys; that’s the problem. I want my hands in the food. It’s what we do. We’re cooks.
CB: At this point, your name is on the front door, but people would be really happy if you were just out in the restaurant walking around, glad-handing all the time. Hell, you’ve always got hot girls on your arm; they’d be really satisfied if you hung out in the bar.
JG: The girls come back here (he laughs, gesturing to one of his office walls covered with signatures from adoring fans).
Theoretically, yes, from a common-sense point, I don’t really need to be on the line anymore. But I want to be. I like being with my crew. I like fighting with them. I’m not just telling them what to do. It’s part of me, I’ve gotta be part of it. It’s fun most of the time, too. Shit, you know, getting burnt, getting cut, saying, “behind ya,” “up in ya.” I don’t know, it’s just, I gotta be in the middle of everything. All my fucking life.
CB: Where do you get your daily inspiration from? Because 56 isn’t old, but in this business it’s old, and your food isn’t old-guy food.
JG: In this business, 56 is ancient. I read. I pay attention to stuff. I don’t plagiarize anybody. Matter of fact, I make it a point not to do something somebody else has done. You know what helps? I’m the first person in this place every morning. So I check everything in. … So I’m there touching everything every morning as it comes in and you just think food constantly. And you say, “Oh, look at that radish.” And then the butter comes in 10 minutes later and you think, “Oh, butter/radishes.”
CB: What’s your advice to young ladies and gentlemen who aspire to be a chef or a cook?
JG: Do not think that you’re gonna become rich and famous. Be prepared to be miserable 80 percent of the time you’re in the kitchen in your younger days because you’re gonna get yelled at, you’re gonna get abused, you’re gonna work, work and work. And if you don’t work, work and work, you don’t belong in the business, number one, and you’re gonna go nowhere, number two. I mean it’s just hard work; physically hard work, mentally hard work, emotionally hard work. Learn the basics. People aren’t learning the true basics anymore.
Buy [French chef Auguste Escoffier’s cookbook/textbooks] so you learn the history of this craft. You’ll probably never make anything in it except maybe hollandaise, but go through every page — it gets boring sometimes — but down the road somebody might say to you, “Can you make a Sauce Charon?” And when everybody else in the kitchen will be looking at you like, “What the fuck is that?” you’ll be looking for tomatoes.
Gibson’s tips for grilling a steak:
1. Grilling is not barbecuing.
2. Absolutely, without any other options, buy quality meat. Don’t buy something on a foam tray with a diaper underneath wrapped in plastic. Even Escoffier couldn’t fix a fucked up cut of beef.
3. Do not be afraid of salt. Season your meat a few minutes before so the salt has time to melt into the meat.
4. Build your fire well ahead of time. Don’t skimp on fuel, and use either wood or charcoal. Don’t ever use gas.
5. Meat should be room temperature before it hits the fire so that it’s the same temperature inside and out to ensure even cooking time.
6. Have a couple of heat zones: hot and very hot. Start the meat in the very hot zone to sear the meat for good caramelization, and then move it to the hot zone for the remainder of the cooking time.
7. Invest in a good instant-read digital read thermometer. Feel the steak so you know what it feels like; eventually you’ll be able to do it by touch.
8. You can turn the meat as much as you feel you need to, just don’t poke holes in it. Use tongs, not a fork.
9. When you think your meat is done, let your meat rest uncovered, off the fire, before you slice it. Remember that the meat will continue to cook.
10. No matter how much you’re drinking, pay attention to what you’re doing and what you’ve done. Every time you do this you’ll get better.
11. Don’t burn the fucking shit. Brown and it’s done; black and you’re done. ©