By Andy Meek, The Daily News
September 7, 2016
Raymond Jackson pays attention to how guests in his restaurant’s dining room react, picking up on bits of conversation and even things an ordinary person might miss.
For Jackson, the new executive chef at the Madison Hotel, part of the payoff of the job is walking out among the guests and hearing things like, “Lord, these greens are good!” Or when he can see the feet of a female guest, because she’s kicked off her shoes to be more comfortable while enjoying the food from his kitchen.
“That’s when you know you’ve done something right,” says Jackson, the first new manager hired at the Madison after it was bought a few months ago by the Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group.
For Jackson, the new job was something of a homecoming. He’s a Memphis native whose culinary talent has carried him to far-flung kitchens from New Orleans to New York and other stops in between.
It was all the product of first giving accounting a shot, until he decided the world of taxes and audits wasn’t for him. So he packed up, headed to New York and culinary school in pursuit of what he decided was the better thing.
The Madison snatched him up partly because of his experience working under notable chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Norman Van Aken. Jackson, said Madison general manager Angie Hines, brought what she describes as a “calm, professional and experienced vibe to the kitchen.”
“I felt like it was time for me to come back home,” Jackson said about his latest career move. “I’ve been to the Madison on several occasions. I think it’s a fabulous property. And I think I have some tools in my tool belt that will help me bring some new experiences, new flavors to the program here.
“Right now, we’re kind of in a step-back mode. We scaled down the menu to make it a little more accessible to the staff as well for the kitchen, to get them more accustomed to my style of cooking. It’s everybody get together, and then we start taking some leap forwards.”
As the newly installed executive chef, Jackson oversees the Madison’s restaurant eighty3 as well as its Twilight Sky Terrace rooftop lounge. He incorporates flavors into his menus that include Creole, Cajun, Latin and Caribbean influences, among others.
At eighty3, he’s focused on combining global flavors and Southern sensibilities.
“I really enjoy getting to make something more refined,” he said. “Taking some of the flavors of the South and not necessarily having a big boiling cauldron of collard greens. But we’re doing a collard green coleslaw with the pan seared catfish right now. And with the salmon, rather than a big hot mass of black eyed peas, we’re doing a black eyed pea salad that’s seasoned with a little lemon zest, fresh herbs, so it’s lighter. A little more refreshing for these hot Memphis days.”
A significant part of his job is also about taking a step beyond the food. Being an executive chef, for example, means he’s been something of a marriage counselor with his staff. One time, he bailed a cook out of jail.
It means thinking about food costs, labor costs and stepping away sometimes from the cooking, entrusting it to the younger staffers.
“But what’s not to love about this job, about cooking?” he says. “You get this wonderful beautiful tomato or this nice, beautifully marbled steak. And you take care of it. You season it. Whatever tickles your fancy. Whatever you’re in the mood for. And you can make people smile with just a little pinch of salt. It’s very personal. And the more you do it, the more you get into it, it can actually become intimate. And you establish a connection with your ingredients, your environment. And it shows in the food.”
He praised the Madison’s new owners, saying the company has “big things” in the works for the property. Among other changes, in recent days the hotel announced special packages specifically for concertgoers who stay at the hotel, packages that let them enjoy benefits like a dining credit and pre-concert drinks.
“We have a lot of potential right now,” Jackson said. “The new group that purchased the hotel, I’ve been to several of their other properties. There’s going to be some exiting new developments going on. They want to invest in this community and give it something special that locals are proud of.”