Celebrity Chef J Ponder is a food entrepreneur and proud US Navy veteran who has built a successful career as an award-winning celebrity chef.
Celebrity Chef Jacoby “J” Ponder is an alumni of Food Network’s famous cooking competitions Cutthroat Kitchen, which he won twice, and he was a finalist on Chopped. Kicking off our new ‘Meet the Chef’ series, Chef Ponder spoke exclusively to Melan Magazine about what sparked his interest in cooking, his favourite cuisines and how he is giving back to the next generation of veterans.
For the benefit of our UK readers, can you share a little bit about yourself in terms of your journey to becoming a chef?
I started my cooking journey in the military, the US Navy. I had the opportunity of cooking for a lot of great people. I would say most of my culinary training probably came from the military because I was able to go to advanced culinary schools in the military, that’s where I got my degree in culinary arts.
After I transitioned into culinary school, I got a bachelor’s in food service management and while I was in culinary school, I had the opportunity to go on Food Network to do Cutthroat Kitchen, which I won twice. I also appeared on Chopped. Following that I kind of just pursued my own thing, doing French food pop ups and dinner parties and all kinds of things like that around Virginia and Washington DC. People began to hire me for different events, different situations. In my 22-year career I’ve cooked for a lot of great celebrities. While I was in the military, I cooked for the likes of Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, President Bush and I think Celine Dion, Cuba Gooding Jnr etc. More recently I’ve cooked for The Real Housewives of Atlanta, rappers and artists, all kinds of people…so that’s kind of my journey in short.
Was there a person or event that made you realise that you wanted to be a chef?
Uhm, no. It’s one of those things, you know…In the military, everybody thinks they’ve got the best job, no matter what your job is, and me being a cook, I had the opportunity to see how food impacted people, simply by taking ingredients, to create something from scratch and just getting the reactions from the people. This kind of turned me on to want to know more about cooking – the journey of the culinary arts from different points.
Looking back on it, I was raised in a small town right outside Atlanta Georgia and my grandmother was a sharecropper; my grandfather was too. They had a nice garden, my grandfather had chicken coops and hog pens and one thing I tell people; I rarely go to the grocery store for anything because you kind of grew [your own crops] and did your own thing; now it’s cool, it’s organic, but back then it was just eating, there wasn’t a name for it. Looking back on that, I was influenced by the culture of food, on my mum’s side and my dad’s side of the family, everybody cooks something, everybody is a cook. I mean every Sunday, you can literally go to four or five relatives’ houses, you’re going to eat four or five times… There is food everywhere, so thinking back on it, I was influenced with food, and going to culinary school turned me on to the science, and nutrition of food.
If you were not a chef, what career path would you have taken?
Probably a history teacher. I actually love history. I try to incorporate a little bit of history, not just of food history, but generally the history of Black culture too. You know many people don’t know that a guy by the name of Chef Hercules Posey was the first Black chef in the White House to cook for George Washington? I like to highlight our importance to food and how culturally, Black people have impacted food and the culture, bringing the okra from Africa. Yams from Africa made the journey over with the ancestors to America to the point where we got gumbo now; we love yams over here now.
You don’t really see too many Black chefs on TV, whether it’s on Food Network or whatever. You don’t often see our presence, but we have such a historical impact on the culinary arts, so yes, I’d be a history teacher.
Do you have a signature dish? And what is it?
A signature dish? […long pause] I don’t have a signature dish unfortunately. I think it would be anything that is Mediterranean … and seafood, I love anything with seafood and of course now I’m in Atlanta, there’s really no fresh seafood around due to the fact that we’re so inland, but when I lived in Virginia Beach or in the Maryland area seafood was abundant.
Would you say you’re a messy cook or a meticulous one?
I’m very, very meticulous. It’s that military training because it’s always about cleaning as you go. It becomes embedded in your DNA to keep a tidy kitchen, to keep everything on point. The French phrase for this is ‘mise en place’, everything in place. You kind of have a foresight of where things are going to go and how to execute it. Yeah, I don’t like a messy kitchen.
So, when it’s just you and the family at home, what do you cook?
Uhm…believe it or not, my children…they don’t like my cooking. It’s not like they don’t like it, it’s just, they think it’s too fancy, it’s like do we eat it, or do we take a picture? I try to tone it down for them. I think the top dish I make for them is probably spaghetti, from scratch though, the sauce, everything from scratch. They really enjoy spaghetti.
In your view, what are the best food flavors to combine?
I like to go back to the southern roots and deal with barbecue. Lamb is a fun time favorite for everybody. Lamb chops or any kind of lamb. So, the fusion with that will be a lot of the flavours from the Mediterranean regions, spices like coriander and cardamom and nutmeg. I really resonate with those kinds of spices.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working or cooking?
Like I’m literally always working, but I do enjoy reading. I actually lecture. I teach history on the side. No sports activities, though I go to the gym now, I became what’s called a gym rat! I go to the gym a lot and that’s it really.
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If you had to pick a cuisine, based on a country, where would you be living?
That’s a tough question, wow! It would probably have to be somewhere in central or South America, just because of the freshness of the complimentary sides like not so much the salsa from Yucatán. I had a great Peruvian salsa in Miami one time and Peru has very clean food as does places like Argentina and Brazil. I just love the style of service. It’s simple, the flavors are complex but it’s great food and it’s clean. It’s not a whole bunch of mashed potatoes and rice, and all about starchy foods. In Brazil you get the proteins, vegetables and you’re good to go. So, I’d be living in South/central America.
Do you have any exciting ventures you’d like to tell us about?
I developed the Chefpreneur Academy, which is a program that I created to teach veterans who are transitioning out of the military, [either retirement or getting out], to be cooks like myself. They don’t really know what to do with their skill set, so I teach them. It’s a one-week course where I teach them personal development and how to take those skills and kind of create a business plan for the civilian side of the world which some of them have never seen.
Visit the Chef J Ponder website.