Big Grove Tavern, Champaign, Chef Jessica Gorin, Illinois, Mind of Our Chef

“Mind of Our Chef” Part Deux

Today on “Mind of Our Chef”  we dive into how Jessica landed in this Bubbly City and how the concept of Big Grove Tavern came about.

jbg kitchen

How did you end up in the CU?

My husband Jonathan and I moved to CU at the end of 2011 when he accepted an assistant professor position in the Department of Geography at UIUC.  We met in graduate school at UC Davis and he followed me as I worked around Napa and San Francisco.  When he got this opportunity, it was time for me to follow him.

How did BGT come about?

The university put me in touch with local restaurateurs.  I met with a number of people who were interested in investing in or opening a restaurant and just struck a rapport with the eventual owners of BGT.  After keeping in touch over the year before we moved to town, the investors and I settled on the idea of doing a farm to table restaurant that would utilize my West Coast sensibility in an accessible Midwestern context and focus on highlighting products from local farms.

Was Farm to Table always the way you saw yourself leaning?

Once I started cooking, seasonality was always very important to me.  Davis was similar to Champaign-Urbana- a college town in an agricultural area with a very strong farmer’s market.  I was always very aware of what produce was available and wanted to use what was at its peak.  As I continued to cook, I learned that restaurants could work directly with farmers and saw some of the benefits which that relationship produced- higher quality fresh ingredients, unique ingredients grown or raised specifically for the restaurant and a mutual sense of pride from the farmer and the chef for their partnership.  I think farm to table was always a pretty clear path for me.

What do you like most about being in Champaign?

We’ve met a lot of really great people since moving here and developed some good friendships.

What is your favorite thing to do around town in your free time?

We’re pretty chill in my house.  On my days off, we hang out with friends, watch movies and play card games.  When the weather’s nice, it’s fun to walk around the gardens at the Arboretum or head out to Meadowbrook.  And of course, it’s always good to have someone else cook for me- we spend a lot of time at Sakanaya!

jbg duck farmStay tuned after the holidays for the 3rd installment of “Mind of our Chef” with Chef Jessica to learn about her dreams for the future and predictions for the dining scene in the CU over the next few years.

Big Grove Tavern, Chef Jessica Gorin, Mind of Our Chef

Mind of our Chef: Part 1

This is the first installment of “Mind of our Chef” featuring the one and only Chef Jessica Gorin! Below you will learn a little bit about her past and her life before coming to the Midwest.

Chef Jessica hard at work at the Urbana Farmer's Market. She spends every Summer Saturday morning picking up fresh produce for the week's menu!

Chef Jessica hard at work at the Urbana Farmer’s Market. She spends every Summer Saturday morning picking up fresh produce for the week’s menu!

Where did you grow up?

I was born in California and grew up in the small agricultural college town of Davis.  At the age of six, we moved to Houston, Texas, where I lived until I graduated high school and moved back to California.

 What was it like or what were some highlights from your childhood?

In Davis, there was a tomato field right behind our house.  Every summer, the air was filled with the smell of rotting tomatoes left in the field after the picker went through- I still can’t eat ketchup today without coating it in black pepper to cover the smell.

What did you eat as a child?

Until I was about 11 or 12, I had a lot of food allergies.  I couldn’t eat any dairy or peaches or strawberries.  We ended up eating a lot of Chinese and Japanese food because it was generally dairy-free.  I’d try to cheat and make allergen-free versions of foods I couldn’t eat like ice cream and yogurt by swirling together jam and Cool Whip.  It was pretty gross but I guess you could say that’s when I first started “cooking”.  Fortunately, I grew out of all my food allergies.

Growing up in Houston, we did go out for dinner frequently.  Houston had a very diverse restaurant scene and my parents were big believers in children ordering off the regular menu and behaving at the table so my brother and I went with them everywhere they wanted to eat.  We went to all sorts of restaurants- BBQ, Tex-Mex, Creole, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, French, Latin American.  I think it gave me an appreciation for lots of cuisines and for the artistry that can go into the presentation of food.

What were your dreams/ aspirations as a young adult?

I always enjoyed science and spent my summers working at the local science museum or as an intern in a genetics or psychology lab.  I really wanted to be a marine biologist.  Although I enjoyed cooking and would throw dinner parties for my friends, it didn’t even occur to me that working in restaurants could be a career.

How did you decided on school? What did you study?

I went to college at University of California, San Diego, which was right across the street from Scripps Institute of Oceanography.  I majored in Ecology, Behavior & Evolution.  After graduating, I moved back to Davis working on a PhD in Population Biology at UC Davis.  I was interested in speciation and extinction and how they were affected by human impacts on landscapes- basically conservation biology with a lot of genetics and mathematical modelling thrown in.

Looking back now, did you have any idea you would end up where you are today?

Never.  Looking back, I see all the pieces of being interested in food and cooking and local food systems but when I was young there was no Food Network and there wasn’t anything out there promoting the idea of chef as a career.  When I left grad school to pursue cooking it was because I sat back and thought about what I really wanted to do every day and what I could do that would impact the lives of people around me, and for me, that answer was cooking.

FullSizeRender_2Next time learn about how Jessica made the jump from California to good old Central Illinois!