Muskego native Jesa Henneberry is among the chefs competing on Food Network’s new “Big Restaurant Bet” for a $250,000 investment in a first restaurant.
Hosted by Geoffrey Zakarian, “Big Restaurant Bet” brought competitors together in Florida for this new series of six one-hour episodes, which premiered April 5 on Food Network with streaming weekly on Discovery+. The competitors take on a series of challenges, trying to secure the $250,000 contract with Zakarian’s company to open their own restaurant.
Henneberry graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and spent a decade working in the fashion industry. That eventually amped up her interest in fitness and health, and she attended the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City. She became a private chef and restaurant consultant, with a particular focus on sports nutrition, including vegan, paleo and allergen-free menus.
Currently working on plans for her first restaurant, Maize, in Westfield, New Jersey, Henneberry comes back to the Milwaukee area regularly. She always plans a stop at Kopp’s for a flavor-of-the day.
Question: Tell us about your Wisconsin roots and how they influence your approach today, How often do you get back to this area?
Answer: I grew up in Muskego, graduated high school in ’97. I went to New York to be a fashion designer and spent 10 years in the fashion industry, then turned to my culinary career. One of the things I’ve always told people about my food style is it has a Midwestern approach. It is not contrived, it is not too far out. I love comfort food.
Q: How did you come to work with “Big Restaurant Bet”? Had you auditioned or been called for other shows in the past?
A: I’ve done “Chopped” in the past, and I’ve been called to do a couple of other shows. This one seemed like a good opportunity for me.
I’m pivoting from being a private chef and consultant, and working in the restaurant scene has been a cool bridge between my fashion designer and chef life. The two creative brains work together. When you’re transitioning in your career, you need support, and having Geoffrey (Zakarian) back my restaurant and stand behind me gives that.
Q: Your area of interest and expertise is specializing in sports nutrition, vegan, paleo, ketogenic and allergen-free diets. What prompted this interest and what’s the biggest challenge in building a restaurant concept around this platform? Or does that even play into your platform?
A: My food style is rooted in healthy cuisine. I was personally competing in the body building world, and learning to eat healthy from a new perspective but I wanted flavor and great technique and flair.
As I’ve gone on in my career path, I’ve realized there are ways to create healthy food without it being so in your face and blatantly healthy. My restaurant is a globally inspired Mexican restaurant of all things, but everything I touch has this healthy thread to it. I am not your typical French culinary trained chef, there is no abundance of frying. I’m trying to be plant forward and vegetable forward.
Q: What put you on the culinary path versus fashion?
A: I came to New York. When I was in the fashion design world it was all about schmoozing and dining out. I realized I’m not eating healthy and gained weight. I need to consider my health. I was lucky to incorporate healthy eating and lifestyle in my late 20s. I think a lot of people do not start doing that until it is too late.
Q: What’s the biggest thing you are taking away from being a part of the “Big Restaurant Bet” process?
A: You have to always be inspired to follow your dreams. Your career is always evolving. Don’t be afraid to take challenges and risks.
Q: What’s an ingredient, recipe or technique you would introduce to everyone?
A: That’s a tough one. I’m currently on the idea of super pungent eating, like eating from seeds. I like black onion seeds, they give a burst of flavor, or sprouted buckwheat groats sprinkled on a salad. It is a nice way to give texture rather than traditional nuts and seeds.
Or, I’m big on savory granolas, they’re fun. Salt curing egg yolks is another thing right now. I’m just playing around. The coolest part of my profession is you can just play. Don’t be afraid of food, that’s what I say.
Q: Any big names you can mention from your work as a private chef?
A: No. I have to sign a lot of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) actually. I have been doing work with one of the New York Giants recently.
Q: Can you share any advice or a lesson learned from working with Geoffrey Zakarian?
A: I learned that professionalism and knowing your craft are so important, and just be passionate and understand it takes a team. Restaurants are a total family situation. You need to rely on everyone in your crew.
Q: Having taken a path not through restaurants, but working as a private chef and consultant, what have you learned? What would you tell other aspiring chefs?
A: I have totally gone the unorthodox route. I have not worked my way up in the traditional way as you will, being a line cook and restaurant head chef or anything like that. I have worked as the consulting person who creates the menu and trains the staff and works with ownership and has done a lot of startup work.
I think that going this sort of unorthodox route has given me the opportunity to really understand what makes me tick and makes me happy. Going the traditional route you can experience a lot of burnout, especially because of the long hours. The commitment is tremendous. It is definitely not something I’m afraid of, I think following your dreams and understanding what you want to do keeps you inspired and driven.
Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or Wisconsin natives, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or visiting chefs. To suggest individuals to profile, email [email protected]
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Food Network Big Restaurant Bet has Muskego’s Jesa Henneberry cooking