Chef James Muir of Órale Mexican Kitchen in Jersey City
The consulting Chef for Órale Mexican Kitchen, Chef James Muir is responsible for the development of Órale’s creative menu and oversees the kitchen’s execution of same.
James Muir was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to a Scottish father and a French mother. After attending the French Culinary Institute in New York, James went on to work for Alain Ducasse, China Grill Management at the Royalton Hotel, The Sanderson Hotel in London, and then at Tuscan in New York. He quickly rose through the ranks and in a few years was offered the position of Executive Chef at an independent restaurant in Long Island. After a year there, James decided it was time to experience the business side of a restaurant in a high volume operation, and went to work as Executive Chef for Rosa Mexicano in Washington, DC. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to Regional Chef in charge of several properties throughout the southern U.S. After Rosa, James decided to move back to New York and open up his own catering company, named for his paternal grandfather, focusing primarily on the flavors and textures of food and not just presentation.
JERSEY BITES: What is your earliest food memory?
CHEF MUIR: My earliest food memory is cooking an Argentina asado with my father. I actually have a picture from that day hanging in my office. I must have been about four years old, and we cooked a BBQ together for friends and family on a beautiful Saturday morning. Back then I was amazed with the lighting of the fire, and eventually my amazement turned into how these basic elements—fire, food, salt and pepper—would transform into an amazing meal. I realized that with those same ingredients things could turn out either great or mediocre: technique is the most important skill to have.
When did you realize you wanted to make cooking a career? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
I was in Argentina, at 19 years old, in a gas station, after a rough night of partying. I never imagined myself sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day and I knew I wanted to make a change. I was talking to a friend of mine that night, and told him I wanted to do something different, but wasn’t sure I could make a career out of cooking. There was always an expectation that I would become a doctor, but I always knew I couldn’t handle seeing people who are suffering. That’s when it clicked, right there, at the gas station, at 4 a.m. Then everything changed. I moved back to New York, started working at a restaurant and then went to culinary school.
Any interesting stories about where and with whom you started cooking professionally?
There are lots of stories always. The restaurant business has an interesting cast of characters, and we all have our own craziness. We have to be a little crazy to do what we do.
What is your cooking style?
My cooking style focuses almost entirely on the balance of flavors and textures in food. I take an approach where I try to strip things down to the elements that are absolutely essential in a dish, without adding things that don’t belong, just for the sake of decoration. To me the flavors and the technique come first in the evolution of a dish and are then followed by the presentation. Now a days it’s backwards, you get a dish that is beautifully presented but tastes like nothing.
What is the greatest opportunity that has come from cooking?
The greatest opportunity is every single day, it’s in the present, when I cook and I can see how the guests are enjoying what we prepare. To me, that’s what makes everything worth it.
What is the most memorable meal you’ve had, what did you eat and where was it?
I was nine years old and my parents took me to a place in Italy called Castello di Gargonza, in Tuscany. I remember the meal had about six courses, and the only dish I remember are these crostini made with wild boar livers. To this day, I haven’t tasted anything like it. I used to like things that were unusual for a child.
It’s your last day on earth: what’s your final meal?
On my last day on earth I’m not sure I would worry about what I would be eating. Whatever it is, I would want to make sure that I was sharing that meal with my family and my friends. Well, I would also want to gorge on foie gras.
What is the best advice you have to share with young folks interested in becoming chefs?
It’s hard for any young person to know what they are getting into. I would tell them to try working at a restaurant to get a feel for the business before going to school. I would also tell them not to worry too much about what food trend we are in right now. Learn the basics, put your time in at the stoves, and tomorrow, start your own trend.
If you could choose to be any food item, what would it be?
I would want to be a banana. I’d rather not explain.
What is the one “staple” food you always have in your cupboard at home?
Alderwood smoked salt. I actually carry a tin in my pocket just in case.
What is your beverage of choice?
Coffee. I used to drink about three quarts a day, now I’m down to two cups.
What is your favorite comfort food?
I love a great burger with Swiss, bacon and mayo on brioche.
If you could have dinner with any three people, living, deceased or fictional, who would they be and why?
It’s strange to think of myself having dinner, I’m usually the one cooking. If anything, I would have wanted to cook for Ronald Reagan and perhaps get to know him, Francis Mallmann, to exchange ideas, and Keith Richards, just for laughs.
Are you working on any upcoming projects our readers would be interested in learning about?
I am, but I have to keep that under wraps for now.
Órale Mexican Kitchen
341 Grove Street
Veronique Deblois is a food and wine blogger based in Morris County, NJ. As the author of the popular blog Food & Wine Chickie Insider, Veronique shares recipes, wine and restaurant reviews. Follow Veronique on Twitter or like her Facebook page.