Cookbook Q&A - James Major
James Major, Executive Chef, Progressive Field
Chef James Major is as quick with a joke as he is with a spatula. Making his way up the tiered, sunlit stairs of the Terrace Club, he cracks one zinger after another (“Come on, does Brad Pitt have this physique?”), as his coworkers’ laughter follows behind him. Major is all business, however, when it comes his life’s passion — food. In January, he was promoted from Terrace Club chef to executive chef for the ballpark, where he oversees menu planning and food preparations for events large and small. From corporate meetings to weddings, Major keeps everyone who comes through Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians, well fed. Recently, he sat down with Ohio Magazine to discuss his background, philosophy and his love of Romanburgers.
Q: Where were you born?
A: Cleveland, Ohio.
Q: What was your first job in food service?
A: Kentucky Fried Chicken, from 1987 to 1994.
Q: When did you first realize you wanted a culinary career?
A: I always liked working with food. I got to a point, when I was managing the KFC, where I said, ‘I can do something else. I want to go out there and do something else’… I joined the Navy as a cook [in 1994]. It was the best thing I ever did.
Q: What was your favorite childhood food?
A: I’m half-Italian and I’m half-Croatian, so there are two. My grandmas each made me something I liked. My [Italian] grandma would make me pasta Bolognese, and my other grandma, who’s Croatian, would make me…nut roll[s].
Q: What is your favorite meal now?
A: I say this all the time and everybody laughs — it’s a Romanburger, or an order of chicken wings. My [favorite] nice food is duck — if I go anywhere and they serve duck, I’ll get it, prepared just about any way.
Q: What is your philosophy in the kitchen?
A: Not a lot of ingredients — pick two or three ingredients and make those shine. I’m not one of those people who keeps putting things in, who overdoes it. I like the natural taste of a food. If it’s a steak, I want it to taste like a steak. I don’t want to enhance that experience.
Q: What is your signature dish?
A: My halibut: Egg-battered halibut with caramelized onion, dried currant, and a sauterne butter sauce. I like to mix the sweet with the savory. It’s like eating Doritos and Oreo cookies — it’s a good combination!
Q: What is your favorite seasoning?
A: I love fresh rosemary and thyme.
Q: What is the most challenging request you have ever received?
A: I’d say the most challenging request is when I served rack of lamb, and [the customers] wanted mint jelly with it, which nowadays is kind of a faux pas, but they were older, and I had to [make] mint jelly in, like, 15 minutes. I made it by hand. I faked it but I made it.
Q: Do you have a personal culinary hero?
A: There are so many people who’ve touched my life… but there are two who really stick out. There’s Greg Federico, who wasn’t a chef. He was my first boss, he’s one of my best friends today and he taught me how to manage. My other one would be Senior Chief Mark Olson, who was my Senior Chief in the Navy. He taught me how to be a leader. He was the one who pushed me to be brave — don’t ever give up, don’t ever say die. That’s always been my philosophy. Those two guys — I always think back and go, ‘What would they do?’