Monarch Magazine: How early did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career as a chef?
Chef Jason Ellis: That was early…. when I was a kid in St. Louis, Missouri. My parents cooked all the time. We were in an urban community, but we ate different. My dad bought my mom a real steel iron wok, and none of my friends’ parents were using that type of product. In my house we ate many things: Chinese, frog legs, crab leg, king crab legs, duck, scallops and soul food. I was exposed to a lot of different foods and with all that cooking, it sparked my interest. My mom let me try cooking egg foo young when I was around 9 years old, and I haven’t stopped cooking since.
Monarch Magazine: Were there any struggles associated with this decision?
Chef Jason Ellis: Let me go ahead and tell you the truth on that story. I was born in St. Louis and my parents both grew up in South Carolina. My parents got a divorce and we end up living with my mom in Greenville, South Carolina. Being a single parent was hard for my mom, raising both me and my older sister. I got into a lot of stuff I probably had no business getting into because I got tired of seeing my mother struggle. That was a short-lived life and there were a lot of pitfalls of that life. My friends and I got into knee-deep type trouble doing stuff we had no business doing. If we kept going the way we were, I was going to be either shot, in jail or dead. I finally said, ‘You know what? I’m done. I am finished.’ I asked myself, ‘What do I love?’ and I knew that I loved cooking. That was it, I chose cooking over that life I was living with my friends.
Monarch Magazine: How did growing up in St. Louis influence your cooking style?
Chef Jason Ellis: I opened Smoke 631 named after the zip code from St. Louis, not my area code but my zip code of 63136. Grilling every day and even in the winter was like riding a bike as a child-if you had a bike, you were on it. If you had a Grill in St. Louis you were on it. There are also a lot of Chinese places in St. Louis, so a lot of spice and Asian influences are big for me. I like cooking things that are individually recognizable and use them to bring people together. Just like the lobster and chocolate. We poached the lobster in butter (it’s confit). Lobster doesn’t have much fat so we cook it in butter. It’s a French method when you cook something confit, so when adding the butter, spices and heavy cream fused with the white vanilla bean then take a wonton chip and fry it, fuse it. All together it become an edible orchid. So, taking from different techniques, different cultures and being able to fuse them together to make a dish, that’s one of those joys of cooking.
Monarch Magazine: What made you decide to become vegan?
Chef Jason Ellis: It was something that I felt coming for years. When you are thinking about the manifestation of yourself, you see your future self. One day a friend of mine was going on the Daniel Fast for 21 days and I joined in. During the 21 days of fasting, I was studying and reading and the number 40 kept coming up. So instead of doing the 21 days, I decided to do 40 days. After those 40 days, I lost 68 pounds. During the fast I didn’t have white potatoes, white rice, no starchy type items, no meat, no fish, no sweeteners. I used dates for my sweetener, consumed tons of water and ate purple sweet potatoes and whole grains. The fast had me questioning that if I could lose that much weight in 40 days, what was in the food I was eating before? At that point, I never went back. I kept doing the Daniel Fast, maybe more than I should during a year but I loved the way my body felt, and it made me cut back from processed food, fried food, beef, pork and chicken. I stayed with seafood about a year after that and then in August 2019, I went completely vegan. I loved the way I felt and honestly it made me a better chef because it made me reach for things deeper than I would have in the past. I didn’t want to miss meat, so I added in flavors and different items and even different techniques of cooking.
Monarch Magazine: Who were some of your influences?
Chef Jason Ellis: Outside of my mom and dad being the major influence for me, I would watch Julia Child on TV and that Cajun chef who would say “I gha-rawn-tee.” Those were the only channels I would watch on TV. Years later, there was this young black dude on TV that I would watch all the time. He cooked and I was like, ‘Wow, look at him.” First black chef I had seen on television. I had never seen anyone that looked like me do this before. He was do distinctive. He always wore this button-up shirt and he had the bandana that matched his button up shirt. It was Chef Marvin Woods. It’s funny to look back at that now because Chef Marvin Woods ended up being one of my best friends and a mentor of mine. I grew up watching this dude because I had never seen a black chef. Not knowing that one day we would cook all over the United States together. He is still my mentor today.
Monarch Magazine: Is there any mood or space you need to be in to prepare a meal?
Chef Jason Ellis: No, not really. Those pictures you see on my Instagram, most of those dishes have been sitting in my head for months, and I hadn’t had a chance to get to them. I don’t know where it comes from, but then finally, one day, I put it to action and bring it energy, E = mc2. Thoughts are energy. One day that energy forms together and becomes a mass, a solid projection, something that you could focus on and see it best. It’s not in thought form anymore; it’s in the physical form. For me, those are my dishes and I look forward to the day to bring it together. I love cooking. It’s like my soulmate. Cooking calms me down, sooths me, excites me, pays me, always there for me, never cheats on me, exhilarates me but, at the same time, takes care of me. Because I love it so much, I can get into the kitchen dead tired and find five ingredients and come out with a meal that will have people saying, ‘How in the world did you make this out of what was in the kitchen?’
Monarch Magazine: What are some of your favorite dishes?
Chef Jason Ellis: I love grilling! Barbecued beef ribs are one of the things I love and enjoy preparing. The lobster and chocolate are one of my favorites, just because everybody goes crazy about it. I also make garlic moscato butter, smoked king crab legs, butter, herbs, moscato wine, garlic, all smoked on a hickory grill. That’s probably one of my favorites. Also, rosemary garlic lamb, taking the lamb and cutting it and getting that perfect sear on the lamb.
Monarch Magazine: How much do you think about health and nutrition when you cook?
Chef Jason Ellis: Every day. Me and my son, who is also vegan, are notorious for going to the store and reading everything on the back of the container. I play no games! If it’s not preserved with salt or vinegar or some form of that, I don’t buy it. You would be amazed at what’s in some of the food, but that’s an entirely different subject. If you think about what’s going on now with COVID-19, we, as a black community, must look inward when we are talking about obesity, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. When a pandemic occurs, we are more susceptible to getting the worst of it because of the condition of our bodies. Even before this, keeping your immune system up and eating fresh food and fruits with seeds, not the GMOs, is always top of mind. I try to stay healthy when I’m cooking for my clients and myself, but I won’t force it on you.
Monarch Magazine: For those of us who have a hard time making toast, what would be a dish we could prepare that would impressive without causing too much stress?
Chef Jason Ellis: The first one that comes to mind is a pasta dish. We all like pasta and it cooks quick. Grab your blender and pick up some D.O.P tomatoes, add garlic, basil, parsley, onion, olive oil, and I like taking a sundried tomato. Put it all together in the blender and make an awesome dried tomato pesto. I add seared mushroom, but you can add the protein of your choice. Everything that I’ve mentioned to you could be purchased from your favorite store. Buy all fresh ingredients. Put it in your blender and make that fresh, incredible pesto with a lot of flavor. When that pasta gets done, place it in a sauté pan and add some olive oil and put that together and maybe a little Italian seasoning, salt and a pinch of sugar that helps kills the acidity in the tomato (just a pinch that will smooth it all out). Super easy!
Monarch Magazine: Food is one common denominator that brings us all together. Today this has become more challenging than ever before. What are some ways we can still seek food as comfort?
Chef Jason Ellis: My family and I get together on Zoom each week and that’s nostalgic alone. Then we start talking about what mom used to cook or bringing up recipes and dishes that we grew up on. That becomes our comfort. If you take that and start doing that with your kid, husband or wife or whoever lives in the house with you during this pandemic, it creates that feeling of nostalgia. Whether it’s taking out the old black iron skillet, the Crisco shortening, then letting that chicken soak in that buttermilk and using that flour to fry the chicken slow in that iron skillet and explaining to the kids, ‘This is what mom or grandmother use to do.’ Things like that and those dishes are inside your spirit and your soul that you grew up with. Being able to share that and talk about those memories is one of the things I look forward to because in our busy life, we wouldn’t have time to do that. All those meals and stories on my Instagram Story are just small ways to remind you of the things you grew up with.
Monarch Magazine: How would you describe the Chef Jason Ellis experience?
Chef Jason Ellis: So I would say, if you were to come to the restaurant or if I catered for you, I think my goal is that the love and the energy that I have when I’m preparing —when I’m taking the ginger and garlic, the different ingredients and I’m fusing them together—that transfers to the plate and it transfers to you when you put your fork in it and twist it and take your first bite. You can feel it on the other end. That’s me.
Monarch Magazine: Thus far in your career what would you consider a milestone moment?
Chef Jason Ellis: I think it’s still yet to come. First, let me say that I am grateful. I have a spirit of gratitude. I thank God. I thank the universe for everything that I’ve done and been able to accomplish. I don’t know if I should speak this out, but in some sense, I still feel like I’m behind. In another sense, I realize I must set goals for me. The goals that everybody thinks are impossible, I don’t. That scripture in the bible that says, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ I’m just ignorant enough to think anything is possible. There is a whole universe out there. If you don’t hit your goal, you may eventually go much farther past it and do something even greater. I have set bigger goals that hadn’t physically come to manifest in accomplishments yet, in hopes that it keeps me moving, striving and going after bigger and better things. I do believe there’s more in me. Let’s go get it!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.