Meet & Cook With Chef James
James grew up on a 50-acre horse farm near the Salinas Valley. His great-grandfather emigrated from Yugoslavia into the Central Valley and started an apple farm. His grandfather later moved to the very fertile Salinas Valley and started one of the first produce companies. It was called Sun Harvest. My mother raised us mostly on local fruits and vegetables though there was still the occasional cooking “out of a can” given the generation. Canned beets! The one thing we always had was a bowl of fresh fruit, cut up and put into a bowl for us before we went to bed.
James earned a master of Spanish literature and linguistics from Middlebury College and lived in Spain for two years. He later entered into the technology business and worked at various advertising agencies in San Francisco over a 12 year period. Along the way, he started cooking as "therapy" for his corporate day job. CookWithJames has created 15 years ago as an underground supper club. James would prepare multiple-course regional Italian and Spanish dinners in his home for guests and friends. James staged at Quince restaurant after they opened in 2004, and has also lived and cooked in both Italy and Spain. After leaving his day job in advertising in 2009 James launched CookWithJames as a full-time business, offering private sit-down dinners as well as cooking class parties for all occasions. To learn more visit CookWithJames.com.
When did you first become inspired to begin cooking?
I was looking for another creative outlet and I love to entertain and feed people so cooking was a logical choice. I love going to markets and shopping for ingredients and talking to local farmers and understanding where all the food comes from It’s incredibly therapeutic and fulfilling.
What does your passion mean to you?
Passion is something you drives and excites you and something you want to share with others. Cooking can literally be very utilitarian (an end to a means) but for me, it excites me and drives me to do more and learn more. And of course, I naturally want to share all of this with likeminded individuals, while getting people excited about shopping and cooking for themselves. It’s really a lifestyle choice.
What made you want to pursue your passion and teach your expertise?
When people set foot through my door they are typically here for some sort of celebratory occasion. It gives me great pleasure to welcome them and hopefully shows them a very special and unique evening of cooking and conversation over great food and ingredients. It’s very rewarding to me and I love it when my guests come back to me days or weeks later and tell me about the dishes they have prepared based on their experience with me.
How would you describe the link between your classes and the community around you?
I would say that my classes are very closely linked to the local farmers and markets and food purveyors that provide me my ingredients. My butcher friends at Bi-Rite Market, for example, all know about my business and follow me on Instagram. Often I send my guests into Bi-Rite to talk to them, etc. It’s a very small, tightly knit community.
Tell us about your favorite moment/ biggest achievement since you started teaching your classes.
That’s a tough question. Certainly, when my guests come back to me with photos of my dishes that they have successfully prepared…well, that is very fulfilling. I also think that seeing CookWithJames grow as a business over 7 years and become so popular and successful has been incredibly rewarding. It means that I’m doing at least some things right and people really enjoy the experiences I provide.
What are your favorite dish and the story behind it?
One of my favorites is the Spanish tortilla de patatas. It took me years to master and it’s a dish I love to consume on a regular basis. Also, my Five Dot Ranch slow-braised beef brisket has been on my menus and in my repertoire for years and is always a crowd pleaser. I have tweaked it over the years and it’s just a great, hearty dish.
How long have you been living in the Bay Area? What are some culinary insider tips you’d like to recommend to someone who just moved to the city?
I have lived in SF for 19 years. As for newcomers to the city, read some of the better food blogs such as my friend’s e-column Tablehopper.com, EaterSF and of course my own blog at EatWithJames.com. These are all great ways to plug into the food scene. Instagram is also a great source of information. I’m @cookwithjames.
What is your favorite moment/story you’ve had between you and your students?
I had a very passionate group of students about 6 months ago for a daytime cooking class. They came from all over the Bay Area for our class and were very curious where I shop etc. I invited them to accompany me to Bi-Rite, my favorite market after the class. I introduced them to my butcher and fishmonger, etc. It was really a special day.
Share one quote that resonates with you the most and what it means for you?
This is a quote from one of my students on his Yelp review of the experience. It really sums things up:
“James is not there to impress you with his cooking skill. Nor is he there to tell you what to do. James shares a love of cooking WITH you, and shows you what that means. In an age of celebrity chefs and frantic displays of cooking prowess, it's refreshing to meet a real person who cooks with love, and inspires that in others.”