"As a kid, I would always help [my grandmother] cook mirliton squash, also known as chayote, which we would stuff with squash and shrimp. We'd boil it, add shrimp then bake it. Being in the kitchen with my grandmother is really what inspired me most on wanting to pursue a career as a chef," chef Brian Jupiter says.
Jupiter has always believed that Southern comfort food is a true art form. Born and raised in New Orleans, his mother was a florist and his father works in computer systems. He has two brothers and a sister. He was influenced by his grandmother's cooking growing up and knew he wanted to be a chef.
Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans by Creole chef Leah Chase was one of Jupiter’s culinary inspiration.
"Leah Chase executed all the New Orleans staples flawlessly. Fried chicken, gumbo, red beans—she stayed true to what real New Orleans food is and she did it well. When I go [to Dooky Chase], I try to get a little bit of everything and it makes me feel right at home,” Jupiter says.
To Jupiter, southern comfort food is a wide range of food that people in the South cook and consider to be staples specifically for their family. "Of course, people think of fried chicken, greens, and mac & cheese as comfort food—and they aren't wrong—but Southern comfort food is more specific to the person making and eating it."
He started his cooking career as a line cook at New Orleans’s famed Aurora Steakhouse and moved to Miami to attend Johnson & Wales University for culinary school when he was 18 years old.
"Living in Miami definitely influenced my cooking style. Miami is full of so many different cultures, so you get a little bit of everything and a lot of cool flavors from places like Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba. One of our first menus at (his future restaurant) Frontier had pikliz (spicy pickled Haitian vegetable relish) and turtle fritters. I like to draw inspiration wherever I can, and Miami has no shortage of inspiring cultures, flavors, and dishes."
From Miami, Jupiter headed to Chicago at 22 years old when he got a job at Narcisse Champagne and Caviar Salon as chef de cuisine, and eventually, executive chef. This was his first restaurant in role as executive chef and he took this opportunity to thoughtfully develop his own style through the menu.
"Being so young when I took on the job gave me the confidence to move on and to be an executive chef at other restaurants, ultimately leading me to open my own restaurant and heading up the kitchen there," Jupiter shares.
He had a leading role in the menu development for the opening of Frontier with business partner Mark Domitrovich in 2010. After opening Frontier, Domitrovich and Jupiter would take trips to New Orleans together. Jupiter would show Domitrovich the corner stores and mom-and-pop restaurants that he grew up going to.
"Mark fell in love with the 'anything goes' spirit and vibe of New Orleans, and for years we knew we wanted to open a concept like this, but it meant we needed the right space and it had to be the right time. We needed a space that felt authentic to those same corner stores we visited, so we could serve food that was authentic to New Orleans,” Jupiter says.
That time came during the summer of 2018, when he opened Ina Mae Tavern with Domitrovich, named in honor of Jupiter’s great-grandmother, Ina, who passed down the recipes he learned to cook with his grandmother. The food at Ina Mae is inspired by his background, growing up, and cooking in New Orleans. Located in Wicker Park, Chicago, the tavern is known for Jupiter’s New Orleans-style Southern comfort food: po’boys, beignets, gumbo and more. Their boiled and fried seafood towers are two of their most popular dishes.
"Chicagoans are very receptive to Southern food, open to dining at Ina Mae, and even trying our alligator sausage.This isn’t a city that you have to tone down what you want to do for people to accept it. The goal was to bring the flavors of the South to Chicago and that's what we've done.”
Ina Mae Tavern received MICHELIN Bib Gourmand status in the Chicago 2020 selection, which Jupiter says pushes Southern food closer to the recognition it deserves with other types of cuisine.
"Southern food is so much more than just fried chicken, but those cooking techniques and flavors that are used to create that kind of dish properly is something you see in other cuisines as well. Southern food has always been thought of as a greasy spoon food or has a sloppy connotation to it, but all the techniques, flavor influences, and ingredients are a lot more vast than that. The more Southern food people eat, the more they will see and taste that."
Jupiter is focusing on Ina Mae Tavern and Frontier for now, but has his sights set on opening more restaurants. "Nothing is in the works right now, but something in the future is a definite goal."
What was the last thing you ate?
Sushi tacos from En Hakkore 2.0, a restaurant right around the corner from Ina Mae and Frontier. The "Crunch and Fire" taco is my favorite; it has shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, jalapeño, avocado.
It's your day off. What do you have for breakfast and where?
I like savory breakfast dishes so probably steak and eggs from a diner. Not one in particular, but I love a good diner breakfast.
Controversial question: Do you believe in brunch?
Yes, I love brunch. Especially for restaurants, you need a mix of breakfast and lunch items, because not everyone likes breakfast or eggs, and it gives everyone an option to find something they like. It gives guests a balance. Right now, I would definitely go to Virtue for brunch. Chef Erick Williams's menu is great. I love the green tomatoes and shrimp, and the brioche and ham.
What is your 2:00 a.m. go-to food?
Dancen, a super casual Korean place. My go-to order is fire chicken with rice balls.
What is your local coffee shop and what do you order?
Gallery Cafe. I order a cortado and potato flour donut.
Where do you go when you travel to your favorite city?
When I'm in New York, I have to go to Maison Premiere. I'd order anything on special that night, but their clam chowder is really good.
What is the "laziest" meal you put together for yourself this past week?
I threw together a grilled cheese the other day with wheat bread, Swiss, and pastrami.
What is your favorite snack food?
I love chocolate covered almonds. They taste good and seem semi-healthy—until you've eaten a whole bag.
What do you eat when you want to treat yourself?
A good, greasy cheeseburger. I'd probably get one from Red Hot Ranch. I like that they are thin, crispy patties. It almost gives the beef a crunch to the edges.
Photos courtesy of Ina Mae Tavern/Pioneer Tavern Group.