By Sue Botos
A self-proclaimed picky eater as a child, Jeff Jarrett never thought that food would be his career.
“I stumbled upon being a chef,” Jarrett recently told an audience at the Rocky River Public Library. The executive chef of AMP 150, in the Cleveland Airport Marriott, was appearing as the opening speaker/demonstrator for the library’s 10th annual “Chef’s Secret” series.
“I worked at Little Tykes for a week and hated it,” said Jarrett, who eventually ended up as a third shift cook at Denny’s in Kent. “After a while, I discovered I just liked cooking,” he added.
That love of food and his innate abilities in the kitchen – he never attended culinary school – vaulted him to the top of the local restaurant scene, landing him a spot at the AAA four-diamond rated “The Leopard” in Aurora’s Bertram Inn, where he eventually became executive chef.
Before joining the team at AMP 150 Jarrett worked at Light Bistro, which was voted best new restaurant by three northeastern Ohio publications, and with Michelin rated chef Dante Boccuzzi at his restaurant DANTE. Jarrett also was executive chef at Lockkeepers in Valley View, and at Hudson’s North End. His first solo venture, Palate, in Strongsville, allowed him to use the seasonal produce, on which he continues to base his creations.
“We’re not a typical hotel restaurant. Despite being part of a chain, we have creative control,” said Jarrett adding that the menu, on which nothing costs more than $19, features local produce. The corn, peppers, tomatoes, peas and other fruits and vegetables are purchased from farms within three to four hours of Cleveland or grown in the restaurant’s quarter acre garden.
“I’m really passionate about local food. When we have a free moment in the kitchen, we go out (to the garden) and pull weeds,” he said. Jarrett stressed that he values local offerings over organically grown produce, which can come from as far away a California.
Sustainability is also important to Jarrett, who was using corn stock in the corn soup recipe he was demonstrating for the library group. (“You can make it vegan by leaving out the cream,” he advised)
“We recycle everything,” he said, adding corncobs to water for making the stock, which can be used in place of chicken broth for any dish.
“This is a good fit for me; this is what I believe in,” said Jarrett of his work at AMP 150. “I have an army of children and I want to teach them where things come from.” Of his five children, ages 14, 11, 8, 5 and 2, Jarrett said that his 11-year-old son is showing some culinary curiosity, but that he would not encourage his children to go into the food field.
“What you see on TV is not what this business is about. What goes on in the kitchen would blow your mind,” he revealed. Jarrett added that a culinary degree does not necessarily mean stardom either.
“You have to earn respect and put in 12 to 14 hour days. If you don’t, people won’t respect you in this business,” he added.
Although his schedule is demanding, Jarrett is one of the chefs behind “Dinner in the Dark,” which he described as an “open mic jam session for chefs.” Hosted by a different restaurant about every other month, the event brings together as many as 12 local chefs who present the best and edgiest of their cuisine. Because guests have no idea what is on the menu, they are having “Dinner in the Dark,” explained Jarrett. The chefs do not make money from the dinners, the proceeds of which go to organizations such as the Cleveland Food Bank, and the Cleveland Sight Center, an agency close to Jarrett as two of his daughters are visually impaired.
It’s this adventurous side to cooking that Jarrett truly enjoys. “There’s no reason not to play with your food. Food is fun. Everyone has food memories,” he stated.