CHEF OF THE MONTH: 'Make people happy with food'

Pam Griffin
James Cooke, executive sushi chef at Jackacuda's, is The Log's Chef of the Month for May.

Jackacuda's Executive Sushi Chef James Cooke was introduced to many styles of food at an early age.

Although he didn't spend a lot of time cooking with family members, Cooke said his mother and grandmother were both excellent cooks.

"I feel like my skills in the kitchen and passion for food in every sense of the word were derived from my grandmother on my mother's side," Cooke told The Log. "She thickened me up every time I visited her in Mexico."

Cooke's mother made mostly Mexican food every night, and he now does the same at home.

"My mom finally trusted me to play with the stove at around seven or eight years old," he said. "The first thing I ever cooked was a family favorite, the quesadilla."

Cooke's grandmother on his father's side was a diplomat who exposed him to many very refined restaurants, even at a young age.

"I was so lucky as a child to experience a balance of delicious home cooked meals and elevated cuisine, which shaped my culinary mentality very early on."

So how did Cooke get from Mexican and gourmet cuisines to sushi?

"I think that sushi chose me," he said. "I would have never imagined when I was first graduating high school going into college as a communications major that I would be a sushi chef today."

Cooke worked as a waiter for several years in a sushi restaurant and gained a respect for the knife and artistic skills of the sushi chefs. Attending college at that time, he decided around the age of 20 that a culinary career would be a better fit for him, so he enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of California Mission Valley.

"My best friend was a sushi chef who taught me how to make sushi in my home in Cardiff, Calif., many years ago," Cooke said. "Our deal was if I provided the ingredients, he would teach me the craft and the rest was history."

Cooke's friend taught him to make basic rolls and nigiri — California rolls, spicy tuna rolls, basic salmon and tuna sushi.

"That sparked my creativity and grew my love for the delicacy."

Some of the greatest sushi restaurants in the country have developed along the coast in California and Florida, and Cooke said these people have a greater appreciation for seafood.

"These restaurants along the coast use locally caught fish, and their customers have a better palate for great seafood. I also feel that many of these communities are more willing to try different cultures’ cuisines."

A professional chef for 11 years and an executive chef for four, Cooke knew working in the Destin area for Savory Restaurant Group as an executive chef was the opportunity of a lifetime.

"The first time I made sushi for a table and saw their faces light up and smile and really enjoy it, that gave me a great sense of joy and fulfillment," Cooke said. "At that moment I realized what I wanted to do — make people happy with food."

Q: Why are some people afraid to eat sushi?

A: I always tell people who are afraid to try sushi to start with a shrimp tempura or California roll. Both of these rolls have fully cooked ingredients, and are great for building enough confidence to try raw sushi. If a person is confident that they do not like raw fish, there are still many fully cooked, and even deep fried sushi roll, options that are available.

Q: How would you describe your style as a sushi chef?

A: I would definitely say that I have a more modern fusion style. But at the same time, I have a great respect for traditional sushi and am more than happy to serve and execute it when requested. All forms of art have a base.

Q: What is the most necessary ingredient for the majority of recipes?

A: That’s a tough question. I would have to say, always, salt. Flavor is the most important ingredient no matter what kind of dish you are creating, and salt is an integral part in creating that. Even sushi vinegar has salt, and sushi vinegar is what makes sushi, sushi. Most people don’t realize that “sushi” means “vinegared rice.”

Q: Best piece of advice you would give a home cook?

A: Fresh is always better, for meat, seafood and veggies. Keep your recipes simple, and always use high-quality products. Cook what you know, and most of all, don’t forget to season. And of course, always taste your food before you serve it.

Asian Style Caprese Salad

4 (1 oz.) slices smoked salmon 

2 large tomatoes cut into 4 thick slices each

8 Thai basil leaves

1 tsp. truffle oil, or olive oil

1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar 

Sea salt, to taste

2 oz softened cream cheese

In a small bowl, whisk the oil and balsamic vinegar together with a pinch of salt; set aside.

Spread cream cheese over each tomato slice, topping with two Thai basil leaves on each slice.

Layer 1 slice of smoked salmon on each slice of tomato.

Plate tomatoes; whisk oil and vinegar again and drizzle over the tomato slices.

If desired, this Asian style Caprese salad may be topped with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.