Chef and owner of Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern, a popular Southern California restaurant specializing in artisanal American food, David Wilhelm brings experience in upscale restaurants to create a place that is both welcoming and hyper-focused on delivering quality meals. When bask chatted with Wilhelm, he revealed his lifelong love for the restaurant industry and the importance of butter in every kitchen.
JFAT has quickly grown to five locations—what has that process been like?
We actually opened our first location in San Diego in May of 2010, so our expansion has been a little more deliberate than it might seem. I kicked the tires and made several tweaks to the concept for two years before opening the new prototype in Dana Point. The greater success we had in Dana Point led us to expand our new version into the L.A. and Brea locations.
What experience do you want diners to have at JFAT, and does each location have its own personality or do you aim for the same ambiance?
I tell our staff that you need to approach each shift as though you were hosting a dinner party in your home. If you can embrace this mindset you will do anything and everything to provide your guests with every level of hospitality. Certainly the goal is to provide the same level of food, service, and ambiance in each location without it feeling ‘chain-like.’ In terms of décor, there are common elements that each location has, like our ‘FAMOUS’ sign, custom chandeliers, raw wood tables, and polished concrete floors, but each physical space has its own shape and personality that set it apart from the others.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your time in the restaurant industry?
Perseverance. Even when things are going smoothly, there are so many details you need to keep tabs on that it can sometimes seem overwhelming, but if you have the passion for the business it will drive you to always keep striving to be better.
What ingredient can you not live without?
That’s an interesting question, but if I had to have only a single ingredient, it would be the one that enhances almost every dish: butter, especially a European-style like Plugra. As an example, one of the simplest but most flavorful and delicious dishes I’ve ever had was in the oldest restaurant in Florence, Trattoria Sostanza. They are famous for a dish called pollo al burro. It is simply two chicken breasts baked in a cast iron skillet with whole butter. It is seasoned with salt and pepper and finished with a squeeze of lemon, and it is like no other chicken dish I have ever had. Like the saying goes, butter makes everything better…or is it bacon?
How does your green philosophy influence the menu and operation of JFAT?
One of the big menu influences would be our partnership with the Long Beach Aquarium’s Seafood for the Future program, which means we only offer seafood and shellfish species that are responsibly harvested, renewable, or aqua-farmed. Early on, aqua-farming had a bad reputation because many of these early sea farmers were not very green in their approach, often raising species in less than pristine conditions. That’s changed now due to pressure to improve aqua-culture techniques. Despite all our natural coastal fishing, the U.S. still imports a whopping 90 percent of all its seafood. There is no way that the oceans can continue to feed the world without aqua-farming.
Operationally, we use green certified soaps and cleaning chemicals, and all our paper goods are made from recycled products. We use low-flow faucets, on-demand tank-less water heaters, and variable hood fans that sense the level of BTU’s [units that measure the heat given off by a stove’s gas burner] and adjust fan speed and electrical consumption accordingly. We also separate all food waste so that it can be composted.
With your experience in so many restaurants, many self-founded, what drew you to the JFAT concept?
I think I was just looking to create something that was simple and satisfying to a wide variety of diners. Many of my past restaurants attracted lots of foodies, but I wanted to create something that had broad appeal and offered the kind of food that you could eat week in and week out. If you look at the crosscut of people that dine at JFAT, I think we’ve been successful at doing just that. Also, I wanted a place that was just plain fun to hang out in.
What drew you to the restaurant industry to begin with?
When I was in college, I worked summers in Manhattan waiting tables, bartending, and working as a captain, back when tableside service was still in vogue (around the time color TV was invented). I was immediately fascinated by everything about restaurants…the food, the people (staff and guests) and the social scene. After college, there was no doubt that I wanted a career in the restaurant business. It was only after years of working for others that I began to want to create something that had my own style and signature.
What do you see for the future of JFAT?
The next step for JFAT is the opening of our Santa Monica location in early 2017, which I’m very excited about. It’s a great location on Ocean Avenue a couple blocks from the pier. After that, the plan is to continue to look for new Southern California sites and then eventually take the JFAT brand to other states.
Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern 25001 Dana Point Harbor Dr., Dana Point, CA ~ 949.388.8900 | J-FAT.com