Chef Julia Jaksic -- the Butcher's DaughterJulia Jaksic is one savvy culinarian. Just 31 years old, she is the executive chef of Employees Only, a hip New York City restaurant in the West Village. Her menu features all the trendy stuff like braised beef cheeks, bone marrow poppers, and duck confit, but her style is influenced by her Croatian-American heritage, showing up in a charcuterie plate of smoked and cured Eastern European meats and chicken liver pate, and specials like pljeskavica or Balkan hamburger, tufahije or Bosnian poached apples in the French style, and others.
Jaksic was born in Milwaukee to Mico Jaksic, originally from a town near Karlovac in Croatia, and Debra Widmer Jaksic, a Croatian-American. Her father brought his butchering and spit-roasting know-how to the States and opened Domines a deer-processing and spit-roasting business specializing in pig and lamb roasts, which he still owns and operates.
"Where I grew up in Milwaukee, there was a small but very strong Croatian community, and every night we would have four- to five-hour dinners. My grandmother made strudel doughs almost daily and filled them variously with apples, cheese, cabbage, sauerkraut, and it was my job to trim off the thick ends of paper-thin dough,"Jaksic says.
She learned to play the brac, a stringed instrument used by tamburitzans, and danced to traditional Croatian folk tunes from the age of 11 to 19. Even when she lived in Chicago, she played for festivals across the Midwest.
"After my parents divorced and I moved in with my Dad, I was immersed in Croatian culture. I listened to it on the radio, went to festivals, soccer games, banquets. It was always the same old women in the halls who would cook the traditional meals served family style -- salads with white-wine vinegar and vegetable oil, meats and cheeses, schnitzels, mashed poatotes. When you walked into a wedding, you were handed a shot of slivovitz. Then you sat down and had more slivovitz. You ate and had more slivovitz. Sometimes there would be pelinkovac (a kind of Jagermeister liqueur) and the older ladies would drink kruskovac (pear liqueur) and soda," Jaksic says.
Her first job working for her father was to wrap butchered deer meat and make deer hamburger. By the age of 12, she was sewing pigs' bellies to steel rods for pig roasts, and making sausages of all kinds, including blood sausage. She helped smoke sausages and pork loins (pecinica), and pork belly similar to Italian lardo (cured strips of pig fat).
WanderlustWhen she was 17, Jaksic left Milwaukee to work for an Internet company in Chicago, but cooking was in her blood, so she began studying at Chicago's Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. After graduating in 1999, she began her professional career cooking for chef Jill Rosenthal at the now-closed Watusi's in Chicago.
But the Big Apple beckoned and, in 2002, she packed up her knife kit and began working at the Soho Grand as a line cook while holding down a second job as a food stylist for three years. Then she began her association with Employees Only, that was interrupted by a restaurant consulting job, and resumed as the executive chef in 2008.
"Employees Only is a cocktail restaurant / bistro with an interesting, retro cocktail prgram. There are a lot of cocktail places in New York City, but we do a full menu in addition to drinks. We're open until 4 a.m. so lots of chefs come in after they get off work. That's the highest compliment," Jaksic says.
Ethnic Heritage Influences Jaksic's Cooking"The base of my cooking comes from my how I saw my grandmother and father cook -- the spices, like paprika, caraway, poppyseeds, and the techniques, like braising and spit roasting. It’s automatic, not intentional. I play around with the classics like chicken paprikash, which I ate a lot of as a child. My dad is from inland Croatia, which has a totally different cuisine. He's from closer to Zagreb, which is near Slovenia and Hungary. Where he lived they did an eel paprikash, I took this base and turned it into skate paprikash. I grew up on poppyseed strudel and, so, poppyseeds show up on my menu in a cucumber-radish salad with red onion, a chiffonade of romaine lettuce and poppyseed dressing. They also make an appearance in my rum-and-raisin bread pudding. Balkan hamburger or pljeskavica is on my late-night menu served with ajvar, kajmak, lettuce, tomato, onion, wedge fries tossed with paprika, and lepinje bread," Jaksic says.
"I’m really aware of being seasonal and using market-driven ingredients, small farms and local producers. I get that mentality from my father and uncle and it has shaped me as a cook. My grandmother made strudel doughs four or five times a week and it was my job to cut off the thick ends before she wrapped the paper-thin dough around apple, cheese, cabbage or sauerkraut fillings. She made breskvice cookies, crescents or kifle, nut rolls and so much more."
Thoughts on an Authentic Croatian MealJaksic says if she wanted to treat someone to an authentic Croatian meal, she'd start with pecinica, white farmer's cheese, pogacha, chicken soup with thin noodles, sarma made with kiseli kupus, goulash with wide egg noodles, fried smelt, zganci (a grain dish) for breakfast, cornmeal with sauerkraut and pork ribs, strukli (little cheese dumplings with brown butter). Without coming up for air, Jaksic continues with these offerings -- turkey and mlinci, raznjici, punjena paprika (stuffed peppers), kobasica (sausage). For dessert, she would kill them with a groaning board of sweets including palacinke, krostule, fritule, and Bajadera torte.
Jaksic Is a Multitasker Par ExcellenceJaksic also maintains The Butcher's Daughter blog, has a book in the works, volunteers her time in after-school programs, teaches at Whole Foods, travels extensively to broaden her culinary perspective (she just returned from a trip to Vietnam), and made an unsuccesful deer-hunting trip to Wisconsin in November.
"I would have butchered my own deer if I had bagged one," Jasic says.