Inside Track: Chef finds happy medium
Once a restaurant owner, Jeremy Paquin enjoys ‘just being a chef again.’
An email arrived in Jeremy Paquin’s inbox several weeks ago regarding a piece of his past he cannot shake.
Paquin had recently taken over as head chef at Grove, part of the Essence Restaurant Group and a three-time winner of Grand Rapids Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year. The weight on his shoulders not to drastically change the menu of an already well-regarded restaurant was heavy.
The email, however, contained a dish from his own restaurant, Mia & Grace in Muskegon, which he ran with his wife, Jamie, for seven years: Duck PB&J. The two-paragraph email was from a Mia & Grace regular, pleading for the sandwich to show up on the Grove menu, despite the restaurant’s history of never serving a sandwich.
“It wasn’t supposed to show up, I had no intentions of cooking it ever again,” Paquin said. “It’s a funny thing, and I’ll smile every time I see one go out. I was flattered, but at the same time, is that really the only thing people remember me for?”
Paquin relented, and the Duck PB&J is on the menu at Grove on weekends, often on the starter menu. The sandwich is house-made bread topped with duck confit, cashew butter and pepper jelly — cut in half and served with a pile of potato chips.
The combination of ingredients and simplicity in presentation is a key point in Paquin’s cooking philosophy, which has changed throughout his career in cooking. At 37, Paquin said his focus is cooking food people will recognize and want to eat, a shift from his early 20s, when fresh out of San Jacinto College, near Houston, he was eager to cook “fussy food with 80 ingredients and an immaculate plate.”
A customer calling for the inclusion of the Duck PB&J spoke to the simplicity Paquin desires to feed his customers. Grove recently placed a cheeseburger on the menu, so, as Paquin said, a customer can leave work and stop by for a burger and beer.
“As I get older, it’s less is more,” he said. “I would much rather use simple ingredients and make them fantastic rather than buy the best of any expensive or exotic ingredient just so I can say, ‘Here’s this exotic plate, I’m going to charge an outrageous amount of money for it, so you can say you had it once and never order it again.’
“A year ago, a hamburger might have been weird at Grove. But I can check my ego. Am I cooking for a customer or am I cooking for me? If you want a cheeseburger, I’m going to make you the best cheeseburger I possibly can.”
Paquin’s dedication to customers goes back to his early career, when he was a banquet chef in Houston following his graduation from culinary school. While he was exploring his “fussy side,” he also was learning how to scale food, as one night might have 20 guests and the next night might have 150.
“It opened a lot of doors mentally for me in cooking in saying, ‘Hey, I can do that,’” he said. “In banquets, you never know what tomorrow will bring. It helped me in scaling and not being stuck cooking for this amount of people and showed that whether we know how to do it or not, we’ll figure it out and make it happen.”
Following his time as a banquet chef in Houston, Paquin moved west, where he was executive chef at Hill Top Café in Fredericksburg, Texas, about an hour and a half west of Austin.
As he and Jamie were preparing to have their child, Mia, they decided to move back to Michigan; Paquin was born in Marquette. Michigan also was where Paquin honed his early-age cooking skills, working during the summers between the ages of 10 and 14 at his grandmother’s restaurant in Manistique.
Not a job hopper, Paquin said he enjoyed stability in the otherwise chaotic culinary industry.
The move to Michigan was made with the intention of opening a family restaurant, with Muskegon making fiscal sense. The Paquins spent two years fixing up a long-vacant store front for their restaurant, Mia & Grace. The pair ran it for seven years, pushing the culinary boundaries of Muskegon while using and promoting local ingredients.
Career and life dreams change. Paquin said the family made the difficult decision to close the restaurant last year. “We had the luxury of saying we had done all we could do,” Paquin said. “There came a crossroad where if we were good with it for the next 25 years, great. It was a tough conversation, a tough reality, maybe this isn’t what we want to do for the rest of our lives.
“It was the toughest decision, but the best decision.”
Paquin said he does miss the loyal customer base in Muskegon and its trust of him as a chef and his ability to put something on a plate and know they’d eat it.
The decision to close Mia & Grace, however, has afforded Paquin with more time with his family — even with a 45-minute commute — and less worries on the day-to-day operation of a business. He now enters his self-proclaimed “prime” with a company and kitchen fitting his desires and will challenge him.
“I’m great where I’m at, I’m happy letting other people deal with all the other things,” he said. “Just being a chef again is great. That’s what it is, I can refocus on cooking, and I don’t have to fix the toilet or worry about the finances.”
Fortunately for the family, Paquin got a job at Essence, joining head chef and friend Aaron Van Timmeren at Bistro Bella Vita. Discussion with Van Timmeren started several months ahead of time, when Paquin knew the decision to close was made.
Joining the Essence team was obvious to him, as he said the sustainability goals, commitment to local ingredients and progressing every day suited him.
“When they say they want to keep improving, that just stuck with me,” he said. “They want to make this better, make the product better, the experience better, the guest happier. That philosophy meshed with me and that it wasn’t just about the bottom line.”
He spent nine months at Bistro Bella Vita, before the opportunity to move over to Grove was open.
As he transitioned to the kitchen on Cherry Street, he wanted to make sure he understood the regular guests at Grove and “walked the line with kid gloves.” He said he tries to let food talk for him, but at a restaurant already regarded among the best in Grand Rapids, what could he add?
He wants people to be able to make eating at Grove a regular event and not feel like it has to be a special occasion.
“It was daunting for me. I wanted to put my influences in where my style would benefit,” he said. “How do we build off of something that’s already great? You do it cautiously and practicing a lot of restraint. If there’s something a customer likes, can we make it better? If the answer is no, fantastic. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
“They’re the customer, they’re who dictates what I cook and how I cook it.”