Jacob R. A’Hearn has been in the service industry for over fourteen years. Chef A’Hearn attended Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA, where he studied in their Culinary Arts program. Aside from his formal culinary training, Chef A’Hearn has worked in multiple restaurants in the Philadelphia area at LaCroix and R2L. Mr. A’Hearn has also worked at Ocean in Downtown Easton, PA. He is currently working as a Sous Chef in the Greater Lehigh Valley at Emeril’s Chophouse in Bethlehem, PA.
The 86’d Life: “How did you get involved in the service industry?”
Jacob R. A’Hearn: “I got started in the restaurant business at the age of 13. I needed some money to do something, so I asked my mother. Her response was, “Get a job if you want money.” She was, kidding of course, but I did not take it as a joke. Instead, I went out around my small town looking for a job. Unfortunately, even in my small town it appeared that no one wanted a thirteen year old boy working for them. That was until a local restaurant hired me as a bus boy. I can still remember seeing those cooks work so fast and furious – it just drew me in.”
86’d Life: “What happened after that?”
JA: “During college (after my culinary courses) I had received a phone call from a local restaurant owner whom now I owe everything to. He called and asked if I had wanted an interview even though I had no experience in the field other than a classroom. When I showed up he was in the kitchen prepping away for lunch service.
He came out and asked me three questions: “Are you willing to give up everything to cook? Do you understand that this isn’t a job, but a lifestyle? You know this job is long hours and little pay?”
I answered yes to all three of these questions. He said show up on Tuesday at 8am, sharp. Now a lot of people might view those questions as insane -why would anyone even ask those- but maybe he saw something in me that I was unaware of.
It is hard to believe that I owe almost everything to this one man; not my cooking style, but my attitude about being a chef. Which in my opinion, is one of most important things we, as chefs, have.”
86’d Life: “You continue to say you ‘owe’ everything to this one man (chef) – who is he? What was the restaurant?”
JA: “The chef I refer to is, Rod Holt, and the restaurant was, The Apollo Grill. Besides him, like all chefs, there have been many people that have helped shaped my career.”
The 86’d Life: “Why did you want to work in the service industry?”
JA: “It is just a deep down love of working hard with your hands to create something that will be devoured in just a few, short moments after its creation. Most people see a kitchen and only see people cooking. When I see a kitchen, I see the chef de parties coming together to make one common goal happen which is to have the customers leaving talking about how great the steak was or the chicken was the best they have ever had.”
86’d Life: “It sounds like, to you, this profession is all about food quality rather than quantity – is that fair to say? To you what makes quality food?”
JA: “Yes that is fair to say. You cannot turn garbage into food -that is just a fact. When food is of poor quality it changes the actual flavor. Quality food comes from fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. Everyone has eaten an unripe tomato or peach and I’m sure we could all agree that it doesn’t taste good. Beyond that, the quality of the product is dependent on how a chef may treat the product. If it is made with a healthy dose of love we can all picture that old Italian grandmother cooking her tomato sauce for a day before it was ready for the hand-made pasta she also made.”
86’d Life: “Where did you receive your formal training? Do you believe that institutional instruction makes a difference in this industry?
JA: “I went to a Northampton Community College, but it is a personal belief that you receive most of your training on the job. Too many people emphasize on what culinary school they go to and not what restaurant they are going to work at. Through the years I have meet plenty of people that went to big name culinary school and are the worst cooks I have had.”
86’d Life: “What is your favorite part of the job?”
JA: “My favorite part of the job happens more now so then when I was a young chef de partie. My favorite part of the job is easy; it’s being told job well done by the customers. Now with the internet being a large part of everyone’s life it is even more common to hear customer feedback. We have apps and food blog sites that tell us what customers have said. That simple, ‘The steak was cooked perfectly,’ or ‘The pasta was divine,’ comment actually warms my soul when I hear or read these reviews.”
86’d Life: “How about the worst part of the job?”
JA: “There are actually two things that are the absolute worst. One is common with all industries I think, but it’s never seeing your children. On any given day I may see them for an hour or two; unless it is my day off, in which case I spend as much time with them as I can.
The other problem many people may not even think about it. It is actually something only a few people may even notice in their career. That would be the more you rise in this (profession) the less cooking you will actually do. Whether, it is a large corporation or your own restaurant you will notice you spend more time on the phone, emails, and on your computer then in front of the stove. Now that may not seem like a big issue to some, but in reality it is the reason all of us got into cooking.”
86’d Life: “Do you believe that sacrifices with this job, like the lack of time with your family, are worth it?”
JA: “To this question, I have to say yes. I don’t know one chef, that I respect, who didn’t sacrifice something. I feel anything worth doing has to have some sort of sacrifice; otherwise it wouldn’t mean anything. My wife may be a little more forgiving than most due to the fact that she also went to culinary school. However, these sacrifices are what (hopefully) help us make something of ourselves so that we may have more time to spend with our families.”
86’d Life: “Any advice for anyone else out there who may be sharing those same struggles with family time vs. work time?”
JA: “The only advice I can give is spend every minute you have with them or helping them.”
86’d Life: “What has made you stay in this industry?”
JA: “I work in restaurants because for me it is a lifestyle – just like an artist. I have lived this lifestyle now for almost 14 years. Food is what I do. It consumes my every minute. It even leaks into my time with my wife and children!”
86’d Life: “What is the biggest difference from working in the city (Philadelphia) compared to a smaller town like Bethlehem?”
JA: “Both have their pros and cons. The city seems to constantly be moving forward where as the smaller cities always seem to move a little slower when it comes to food trends. Also, in most major cities you have no shortage of great ingredients and inspiration. Inspiration and fresh ingredients are found simply by walking down the street at the local market.”
86’d Life: “Have you ever thought about leaving the profession?”
JA: “I would never leave this profession it is a lifetime obsession for me. As far as leave a shift in the middle of service I have not nor would I ever do this. All cooks and chefs joke about how it would be great, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone with the backbone to actually do it. I have left kitchens after a shift is done and said this restaurant isn’t for me and would not be back the next day.”
86’d Life: “Biggest obstacle you have had to overcome while working as a chef?”
JA: “Learning your own cuisine and I’m not talking about cooking, but learning your own style of cooking.”
86’d Life: “Do you have any advice to anyone coming into the service industry?”
JA: “My advice is the same advice my first boss gave to me: understand that this isn’t a job, but a lifestyle. The moment we start to think it is a job is the moment we only think about the money. It is called culinary arts because it is just that -art. If you are willing to set aside the money and just learn how to cook great food the money will follow you.”
86’d Life: “You seem to really focus on the profession as an expression of yourself or ‘art’ as you said. Describe your style, your cuisine, your art that you bring to the kitchen.”
JA: “I’m not really sure myself. I like to highlight local and seasonal ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Mixing old with new and filmier flavors in unfamiliar ways is really how I enjoy cooking.”
86’d Life: “Where do you see yourself in the next five years?”
JA: “I hope to be running my own restaurant(s) or at the very least running someone’s.”
The 86’d Life staff would like to thank Mr. Jacob A’Hearn for sharing his experiences in the industry. We would like to wish him all the best in continuing his career and extending his brand of cuisine to happy-paying customers.
Interview taken by Neil Strebig.