Chef Andrew Jack is experimenting his way through Madison’s culinary scene
'Cook' means quite a bit in Andrew Jack’s case
If you ask Andrew Jack what he does for a living, he’ll give you a straight answer: “I’m a cook.”
But “cook” means quite a bit in Jack’s case: He owns his own catering company, he’s a salt maker, a fermentation specialist and a culinary experimentalist. Whipping up creative dishes for a living is far from a boring gig, especially when you get to do so on your own terms.
Before launching AJT Foods, Jack grew up in rural Wisconsin. Having outdoorsy parents meant enjoying beautiful scenery and becoming well-versed, along with his sister, in gardening, hunting, fishing, maple-tree-tapping and beekeeping.
But this down-to-earth upbringing didn’t just curb a potential video game addiction or a distaste for veggies — it also kick-started his love for creating interesting dishes with whole foods.
“There were raw ingredients around the house all the time, so if I wanted to eat, I had to learn how to cook with those, because that’s what we had,” Jack says.
Learning out of necessity became his main creative outlet. He remembers him and his sister splashing together every sauce and spice they could get their hands on before landing on a particularly bewitching concoction.
“It always felt like magic,” he says, “like brewing a potion or something.”
Magic is right: Jack’s masterpieces are enchanting to this day — his camera roll holds the evidence. Stints at local restaurants and a five-year career at Fromagination prepared Jack for the technical aspects of running a catering company, but nowadays he gets to plan and prepare his ingenious dishes just the way he wants to.
Some days, this means focusing on his spice brand, Umami Salt — a mixture of sea salt and shiitake mushrooms. (Jack personally takes his signature seasoning with caramel atop ice cream in addition to using it on savory bites.) Other days, this means tromping through an associative process after receiving top-tier ingredients from friends who travel or other quirky ingredients. Have something delicate like watermelon? Slice it as thin as possible, vacuum-seal it and fold the translucent “leaves” into a flower. What about hops, serviceberries and rhubarb? Create concentrate and freeze it to create a boozy slushy. Jack strives to create interesting flavors and experiences with his food experiments.
When he’s running his catering company — which is currently on hiatus due to COVID-19 — he transforms people’s favorite foods into wedding meals or event smorgasbords. “Good food is super subjective and experience-based,” Jack says. He interviews his clients and asks questions like “What did you grow up eating?” and “What memories come to you with certain foods?”
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By bringing a sense of whimsy back into fine food, Jack channels avant-garde culinary experiences right alongside the homey comfort of picking one’s own produce. Beyond feeding hungry and intrigued eaters, Jack hopes to demystify the culinary process for folks who have no idea how their meals are really made.
“I just like the exchange of ideas I guess, and people working off each other,” he says. “I’m hoping someone can take these cooking techniques that I share at home and they can put their own spin on it and keep the ball rolling.”
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