Jasa Joseph graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where opportunities for chefs abound, but the Dalton, Georgia, native chose to return to her Southern roots, accepting the position of executive chef at Walnut Hill Farm just over five years ago.
The North Georgia retreat draws guests from around the country for its luxurious overnight accommodations; wedding and special-event venues with beautiful views; and a restaurant open to the public Thursday and Friday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m.
As executive chef, Joseph is in charge of all aspects of food service, from the restaurant to catering for special events.
"I love making each event special to that particular client," she says.
In addition to her duties at Walnut Hill, Joseph teaches monthly cooking classes at Dalton's Creative Arts Guild and also has a private chef company, Jasa's Events, where she customizes menus and prepares them in clients' homes for various events.
Here she reveals her inspiration for pursuing a career in the culinary arts, as well as why she enjoys teaching her craft to others.
Q: Do you come from a family of cooks?
A: Much of my family has been in the hospitality industry. My parents owned TCBYs [yogurt shops] when I was little, then my mom owned West Walnut Cafe in Dalton. My brother later took it over and renamed it Oakwood Cafe. My Aunt Lisa has Lisa's Cafe in downtown Dalton as well. I come from a long line of people who love to cook, but I'm the only one who is a chef. My family encouraged me to follow my dreams.
Q: What is your earliest food memory?
A: I remember making stuffed grapes with my Mama Mary when I was 5 years old. She was the best Mediterranean cook around. She even ground all her lamb by hand in her marble brick and mortar.
Q: The menu at Walnut Hill changes seasonally, so which season do you consider your favorite?
A: That's a tough call because I love fall with its wonderful stone fruits and root vegetables. But then I love spring because all the leafy vegetables and berries come into season.
Q: What do you get out of teaching cooking classes at the Creative Arts Guild?
A: I love being able to teach people techniques they can take home to make their meals better. For instance, simply using fresh herbs, fresh garlic and fresh vegetables can change the entire outcome of a dish.
Q: What's your favorite class to teach?
A: Tapas, because we get to cover many different cuisines.
Q: What's your favorite regional cuisine and why?
A: Latin cuisine is one of my favorites by far. I'm in love with all the fresh citrus, seafood and spices that come from Latin communities.
Q: What's one of the funniest questions you've been asked?
A: If using jarred garlic in oil, is it the same as fresh garlic? Nope, not even in the same class. Fresh garlic is my favorite ingredient to use.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: Taco Bell Mexican pizza with creamy jalapeno sauce.
Q: In your spare time, if you have any between Walnut Hill and your classes at the Creative Arts Guild, what do you enjoy doing?
A: I love being outdoors, but traveling and exploring new foods and cities is my all-time favorite thing to do.
Q: If you could dine in any restaurant around the world, which one would it be?
A: Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. The owner/chef is magnificent. He takes his culinary style and knowledge to a completely different level, making ordinary dishes obscure and elegant.
Q: You love seasonal foods, so what's one of your spring favorites?
A: My favorite bruschetta recipe is inspired by a lifelong friend who passed away a few years ago, Sue Mitchell. She was very supportive and encouraging through my whole culinary career.
Until summer tomatoes are ripe and ready, use the most-flavorful you can find.
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic reduction (see note)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 1/2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, cut into medium dice
1/2 sweet yellow onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/2 bunch parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
French baguette, sliced for crostini and toasted at 400 degrees till crisp
Mix all liquid ingredients then add tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil and parsley; season with salt and pepper. Let guests spoon bruschetta on crispy bread slices. Makes a wonderful appetizer for any occasion.
Note: Balsamic reduction is made by allowing balsamic vinegar to simmer for 15-20 minutes until it reaches a syrup-like consistency. Use about 1 cup of balsamic vinegar. You'll have some left over, but it's delicious drizzled over roasted Brussels sprouts or grilled chicken.