“You either love it or you hate”, that’s Jim Leiken’s take away about working in the culinary arts. Jim is the new Executive Chef at Lucy Restaurant and Bar at Bardessono. Jim is incredibly personable and it’s clear that he has a passion for cooking and good food.
Growing up, his family wasn’t a “foodie family” but did appreciate good food. Laughing, he tells his biggest regret from his childhood was not going to Lutèce in New York City for his sisters 16th birthday because “french food was gross.” College was non-negotiable in his family so Jim attended Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, a place he described as a culinary wasteland, and received a degree in history. After college he decided he wanted to see if restaurant work was for him, so he enrolled in a cooking survey class at the New School in New York.
After the course he was placed in an unpaid externship at March Restaurant on the upper East Side. Describing his experience with the “cast of characters” at March he used the word amazing at least five times. In that small basement kitchen in the heat of the summer with no air conditioning, Jim says he fell in love with cooking and knew that it was where he wanted to spend his career.
He spent the next decade working alongside some of New York City’s best chefs at Restaurant Daniel and then at DB Bistro Moderne. In 2009, Jim was chosen to open DBGB Kitchen and Bar in the East Village. DBGB was big and lively with 200 seats and an open kitchen. Unlike most restaurants where the kitchen has to be quiet as to not disturb dinners, the restaurant was so loud that the kitchen couldn’t hear each other! He remembers fondly the tight knit team that worked well together and had so much fun working their butts off to make DBGB successful.
In 2011, Jim and his wife started to think about what life outside of New York City could be like. After a “perfect weekend” in Northern California for a friends wedding, he jumped on the chance to open Cafe Boulud at the Brazilian Court in Palm Beach. Once in Palm Beach, it quickly became clear that Palm Beach was very different from New York City. A totally different market and a very high end demanding clientele allowed Jim to grow in a new way as a chef, to broaden his skill set, and refine his presentation.
After two years, Jim felt the pull to try something new. His wife, a pastry chef, had done a stint at The French Laundry and had really enjoyed Napa and Yountville (of course!); so the pair started looking for opportunities to move to Napa Valley. Jim’s wife sent his resume to Cindy Pawlcyn and after an hour conversation it was clear, that at the core, of both their cooking philosophy was an appreciation for great products and solid techniques. Jim joined Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in 2013 and was the Executive Chef until it closed in 2018.
So then what? Jim joined the Lucy team in April 2019 and is excited for the potential of the what the restaurant can become. “I didn’t know that much about Bardessono and Lucy but after meeting with Shelisi, Justin and Nate it was clear that Lucy’s potential is amazing. The team and systems that are already in place to make Lucy another one of Yountville’s destination restaurants”. The clientele staying at Bardessono is already looking for the best of Napa and Jim wants to elevate Lucy to be just that. His first goal is to have everyone who stays at Bardessono eat at Lucy. He recognizes that the competition in Yountville is fierce. With Thomas Keller on one side and Michael Chiarello on the other, there is no room for “ok”, you have to be the best. He also sees the importance of engaging the locals and promises me the Happy Hour isn’t going anywhere.
When I asked Jim why Yountville should be excited to have him, he mentioned his 20 years of experience and the ability to be restrained and let the ingredients. Napa Valley is lucky enough to have amazing ingredients at its finger tips and Jim wants to make sure they are the star of the show. “There are few places where you can call a farmer and have them deliver a leg of lamb within a few hours, that they raised from a baby and butchered themselves…Napa Valley is one of those places and I love being able to work with the ingredients that it produces.”
To finish up our conversation, I had to ask Jim some personal cooking questions. When asked what his favorite type of cuisine to eat, is he quickly answered Mexican. “I love the difference in flavors between regions and the complexity of flavors. His current favorite Napa Valley location for Mexican is Gran Electrica in downtown Napa. Last, I had to ask what his favorite thing to cook is and he quickly answered fish. Ever since being on the fish station at Deniel he has had a passion for the finesse it takes to cook it properly, the variety of flavors and textures, and fishes ability to pair wonderfully with the local ingredients we have. Could we be getting a fish restaurant in Yountville? It is definitely something the Napa Valley is missing and somewhere I know I would frequent often!
I am excited to experience what Jim brings to Lucy Restaurant and Bar at Bardessono and cannot wait to eat there again soon!