By OLIVIA INGLE
As a big city chef cooking southern food at his Chicago restaurant, Big Jones, 50-year-old Jasper native Paul Fehribach doesn’t forget his southern Indiana roots.
The son of Joseph and Sandra Fehribach grew up in Jasper and spent much of his childhood on family farms with his five siblings. Fehribach recalls fishing, hunting squirrel and deer, searching for morel mushrooms and picking persimmons and wild cherries.
Through the years, the Jasper High School graduate’s country upbringing has helped him in more ways than one in the kitchen. His career has taken him from a Denny’s restaurant where he got his start while attending the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, to Chicago, where’s he’s blossomed into the chef he is today.
Fehribach didn’t receive any formal culinary training and calls himself “home-schooled, kitchen-trained and largely self-taught.”
He opened Big Jones on the north side of Chicago in April 2008. The restaurant specializes in southern heirloom cooking, in which Fehribach strives to stay true to each dish’s heritage.
Since opening, the restaurant has been recognized numerous times. Most recently in November, it made cnn.com’s “Chicago’s Best Restaurants” list and Jetsetter’s “10 Best Restaurants in Chicago.” Fehribach has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region” five times.
He spoke to The Herald about growing up in Dubois County and his passion for food and cooking. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you talk about growing up in Jasper and southern Indiana?
A lot of people in and around Jasper and Dubois County know the name Fehribach. As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve learned it’s really one of the only places you find Fehribachs. It’s a very deeply rooted and grounded family there. I grew up actually east of town kind of in the woods until first grade when we moved into town on Third Avenue and went to Holy Family for elementary and junior high before going to the high school. My family’s been there since 1836, my dad’s side. My mom’s side of the family is from Appalachia but by the time she grew up they had moved to Detroit, so I had family there. But, the Fehribach side of the family has been in Dubois County for a long, long time. A farming family, my dad got into wood manufacturing and owned Kitchen Jewels for years. The rest of the family farmed. I spent a lot of time on farms growing up.
Did your Southern Indiana upbringing influence how you look at food?
Very much so. I don’t think I realized until much later when I started cooking professionally how influential it was to be able to have the experience of growing up in a farming community, knowing what tomatoes taste like off of the vine. Farm-to-table has kind of become this big thing now and in a city like Chicago, it’s assumed that if you’re going to open a new restaurant as a chef that you’re going to buy from local farms and you’re going to serve locally-produced food. But that wasn’t necessarily the case for a long time. Being able to go out to the pond or the lake and go fishing and to really know what the smell, the taste, the texture of a really fresh fish is like or to be able to taste fresh farm-raised beef or pork or milk that we got from my godfather, directly from pasture and cow before it had gone through the pasteurization process. Having wild foods like squirrel and deer, persimmons, wild cherries and all these types of things, hunting morels in the spring. Those are things that we just did naturally as country people and later small-town people that a lot of my chef friends sort of envy those kinds of experiences. If you buy morel mushrooms now in the city, you don’t necessarily know where they come from. I know exactly what a morel looks like and smells like and feels like when it’s still in the ground. The same with fish and the same with tomatoes off of the vine. When I have a supplier bring me something, I have a real sense of how fresh it is, what kind of quality it is. That just comes naturally to people who are around that culture. I feel really fortunate to have grown up at that time.
Did you cook when you were a kid?
Ha, yeah. There’s a funny story in “The Big Jones Cookbook,” my cookbook that came out in 2015 on University of Chicago Press. We cooked pork chops a lot, maybe a couple of times a month we’d have pork chops. We did them country style. We’d bread them and fry them. My mom, her side of the family was Appalachian in origin, so she had a really basic, country style of cooking. She would put like salt, pepper in there and that was usually about it. Maybe an herb or two. I got this idea that sweet spices would be really good with pork. This was probably when I was about 6 or 7 years old. I asked my mom what was for dinner that night and she said, “Oh, we’re having pork chops.” So, I decided I was going to make a pork chop and I thought some cloves and maybe some cinnamon would taste good with pork, which I know now as an adult is true. But, I sort of started making the dredge, which I’d seen mom do a million times. I took the cap off the cinnamon and just dumped the whole container out into the dredge. I did the same thing with the cloves. I fired up the pan and started frying these things and the smell just completely consumed the whole house. My mom was downstairs doing laundry. She came running upstairs. My family still gives me a hard time about this 40-some years later. Whenever they want to get to me, they give me a hard time about my cinnamon pork chops. So, as soon as I could see over the table, or even stand on a chair, I would try to get my hands in stuff.
Can you talk about your career up to this point?
It was kind of unconventional. I went into culinary after college. I went to Indiana University to the school of music. I had wanted to be a band director because that was a really inspiring thing to me in high school. Sort of at the end of that process, I came to the conclusion that I really enjoyed teaching but I really didn’t want to teach in that context. I thought it would be restricting to my ideas. I had been cooking my way through college, so I sort of stayed with that and eventually became executive chef at a restaurant called Chapman’s. I don’t know if it’s still there or not. It was out on East Third Street on the east side of Bloomington. I did that for about four years or so. That was a fine dining restaurant and I was in my 20s. I was really sort of uncomfortable under the pressure.
That’s pretty young to be an executive chef, isn’t it?
Yeah. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have done it. I would’ve done it differently. But certainly a good experience, regardless. But it was too much pressure for my age and experience level. I had already starting shopping at the farmers market. This is 1992, 93, at the farmers market in Bloomington for local produce. I met the farmers market coordinator, this guy named Paul Skirvin, who was running the produce section at Bloomingfoods, the natural foods co-op in Bloomington. He introduced me to a guy named Richard Satnik who had the idea of doing a California-style tacoria. I guess if you can think like Chipotle, and this was in 1994, 95. It’s kind of what Chipotle became. We were kind of on the leading edge of that. The Laughing Planet (Cafe) is actually still in Bloomington. I ate there a few months ago and it wasn’t as good as it used to be but it’s still there. It seemed younger and hipper and a lot less pressure, so I helped him get that going. That was maybe a big swing in the opposite direction, not enough pressure, not enough creativity. I was really bored after a year. I decided I wanted to be in a bigger market and moved to Chicago. In Chicago, with the experience I had, I couldn’t get a culinary job I wanted, so I became a general manager.
How did you come up with the idea for Big Jones?
Before Big Jones, I had been running Schubas Tavern, which is a famous music venue, but they’ve also got a restaurant in an old Schlitz Tavern with a beautiful brunswick bar behind. I had been there for about five years. They did a lot of rockabilly and insurgent country was sort of a part of that music’s identity. During one of my lower pressure periods after college, actually when I was at the Laughing Planet, I went to New Orleans. People had told me forever that if you love food, you’ll love New Orleans. It was really a revelation of how good food could be. I had sort of developed in the back of my mind that in particular. But when I started working at Schubas they have this country and rockabilly identity to the music venue. It’s changed a little bit now to more Indie-focused, but at the time, I was sort of trying to bring the food for the restaurant more into line conceptually with the music venue, so I started exploring southern and country cooking more than I had. When I was at Chapman’s, that was fine dining and the Laughing Planet was certainly burritos. So, that was a new kind of experience for me. And in my reading and studies for that, I came across low-country cooking, which I thought was really interesting.
What is low-country cooking?
The low country is the coastal plains of the Carolinas, from say Wilmington and Cape Fear down to around Jacksonville. ... Charleston and Savannah are more known for their cuisine. But the interesting part of that is that that’s a historic rice-growing region. They don’t really grow much rice there anymore, but certainly during the colonial and antebellum periods, that was their major cash crop, even more so than tobacco. So, their regional cuisine is based on corn and rice, and wheat is almost unheard of. That sort of gave me a sense of the idea of food having a sense of place, rather than you going to whatever city and the food being the same. As America, you think of bread and apple pie, hot dogs and all of those things. Here’s a cuisine that had nothing to do with any of that. Seafood and rice and corn was kind of what that cuisine was built on. So I kind of became interested in that and started to incorporate a little bit of that at Schubas. But by the time I had been doing that a few years there, I sort of came to the conclusion that nobody was exploring this idea of southern cuisine in Chicago and doing it really well. It was something that I really loved. I really had grown passionate about southern cuisine. I thought it was really interesting and also really delicious. I also saw a market opening in that nobody was doing this in Chicago. So that was kind of the idea for doing it, was if you’re going to own a restaurant and be a chef there, you have to be able to eat the food every day. It was the food that I loved, but thought it was also a very marketable idea.
Big Jones is “southern heirloom cooking.” Can you describe what that is?
We made that our tagline because when you’re talking about southern cooking ... there’s a famous dish in the low country, shrimp and grits. And with shrimp also, in Louisiana, you have shrimp creole, another example, or chicken and sausage gumbo in Cajun country. You’re dealing with a historic cuisine. Sure, it evolves over time, but you’re also dealing with something that’s grounded very firmly in history. Shrimp and grits became a well-known dish for a reason — because it tasted good and because people liked it. To me, in order to really produce an authentic, which is a dangerous and loaded term ... Maybe not authentic, but the historically correct flavors, you have to use the historically correct ingredients. So, the grits we use, we actually buy from a producer in Columbia, South Carolina, and they’re made with a variety of corn called Carolina gourdseed white. ... It’s what you would consider an heirloom breed of corn. We work a lot with heirloom ingredients. Heirloom livestock breeds. Because we feel like those are the ingredients that are going to give us the right flavors. When we say southern heirloom cooking, we mean just that, that we’re cooking in a way that is true to the heirloom, the tradition of the cuisine.
What are some of these heirloom dishes that people can expect to find at your restaurant?
We sell a lot of fried chicken and we’re very famous for that. ... In this case, we’re not really talking about an heirloom ingredient, we’re talking about an heirloom recipe. Most restaurants now that serve fried chicken, they put it in the dredge and they might use a pressure fryer or they might use a regular deep fryer. But they get vegetable oil or shortening ... and that’s what they fry it in. When I was growing up, we fried chicken in lard and if there was any leftover grease from like pork chops the other day or bacon on Sunday, that’d go in the pan too. So, to me, that’s how you cook fried chicken. That’s the heirloom aspect of cooking, for that dish. We cook it in the old style. It’s kind of an iconic image in southern cooking, but also in southern Indiana cooking, my dad’s mom had a coffee can on the back of the stove and put all of her old grease in there. You don’t throw that stuff out. It’s good. It also has flavor. Bacon grease or ham drippings, that stuff has flavor, so why would you go and get some Wesson oil at the store to fry your chicken in? Why wouldn’t you just use this stuff that has all this flavor instead of throwing it out? So, that’s what we cook it in. It really gives it that flavor and people love it.
On weekends, kind of my Denny’s experience, we are experts at egg cooking. We sell a lot of omelets because we’re one of the only places, even in a city the size of Chicago, that does legitimate French-style omelets and does them really well, consistently. We sell a ton of gumbo. Which, gumbo is a regional dish and it’s different in New Orleans, in different neighborhoods of New Orleans than it is in different towns in Cajun country. Ours is definitely a rural, Cajun style. It has a really dark roux and it almost tastes like coffee, a really heavily-roasted, almost charred flavor. We sell a lot of shrimp and grits. It’s a signature dish of ours ... We work exclusively with whole hogs, which is another heirloom aspect of the cooking. My dad’s family did a hog-butchering every winter and that’s what they ate. You ate the whole pig. So, a lot of the charcuterie, or cured meats we make off of that are something that we sell a lot of. We’re known for our head cheese. We’re known for our boudin rouge, which is a Cajun type of blood sausage. You can’t just go anywhere in Chicago and get blood sausage, so in a city of that size, if you like that sort of thing, we’re a place for people to get that. These are things you’d think you wouldn’t sell much of, but in a city the size of Chicago, you can actually sell a lot of that stuff. We sell those things. We do what is called a boucherie board. Boucherie is the Cajun word for butcher. So the boucherie board is a selection of all the cured meats and pickles that we have in the restaurant at a time. Another heirloom aspect of the restaurant is that we do all our own pickling and we make our own sauerkraut. ... Jams and jellies, we also make, and our homemade breads. ... We actually do a pickle tasting. Because we do so much pickling, customers used to ask for it, or for this pickle or that pickle. So, I thought why can’t you just order a pickle tasting and get some homemade bread and all the pickles we have in-house at the time, which is usually anywhere from eight to a dozen different types of pickles. It actually started a trend, which wasn’t my idea.
Can you talk about how you adapt/change/evolve your menu?
I cook seasonally because I want to use farm-fresh produce, again getting back to that concept of southern heirloom cooking or the heirloom style of cooking. I’m cooking from the garden and I’m cooking from the forest and I’m cooking from the barnyard. We use citrus in some things that have to come from California or Florida or wherever, but most of the year, the preponderance of our produce we use in winter is coming from some place pretty close to Chicago. That sets in place a lot of evolution of the menu over the course of the year. If you come to the restaurant in February, we’re not going to have peach cobbler. In February we’re going to be cooking with citrus, probably still be cooking with winter squash if you’re talking about dessert. We’ll still have local apples. So we’ll be cooking with those types of things. ... We’ll pickle a lot of it (foods), so it will show up on the menu as a pickle or relish for months, but that’s how we do it. As far as how I do it, it’s a lot of work. You have to be willing to do the work. If you want your customers to stay interested, you have to be able to evolve and keep it interesting.
Do you know what’s next for you?
Right now, we’re in the middle of planning renovations on the kitchen in the spring, getting ready for our 10-year anniversary. After that, I’m really interested in exploring what I call food from my home country. Which is to say, our southern Indiana/Ohio River Valley country cooking, the type of stuff I grew up with. Growing up with things like pork tenderloin sandwiches, or scrambled eggs and brains, all the different kinds of pies that people bake in the area. Catfish fiddlers. Down in Owensboro, they’ve got mutton barbecue, which is really awesome. I never realized growing up and I didn’t realize until recently how you sort of take it for granted when you grow up with it. I don’t think I realized until recent years how special it is and how appreciative I am of the food culture I was able to grow up with in Jasper. I’ve been working on it conceptually in my mind for years, like learning how to make my grandpa’s wild cherry wine, those types of things. I’d really like to do something with regards to cooking in southern Indiana. So, that’s going to be the next goal. It’s probably going to be a few years for that to unfold, but that’s where I’m going.