olive & oak executive chef jesse mendica photo by carmen troesser

Q&A with Olive & Oak executive chef Jesse Mendica

The executive chef of your Favorite Restaurant didn’t originally want to be executive chef of any restaurant. The media-shy chef took a chance during her “year of yes” and has been quietly turning out some of most innovative, perfectly executed food in the St. Louis area ever since. We sat down with Jesse Mendica to talk Webster Groves, Olive & Oak’s ever-changing menu and her very first restaurant job.

How did the restaurant industry hook you?
“I got the job [at Two Nice Guys] and just being a part of a kitchen and the camaraderie of it – it charmed me right away. It wasn’t even about the food. I’m the pickiest eater there is. I started out so picky, I wouldn't eat anything.”

Like what?
“Oh my God, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, onions, salad dressing, tomatoes … I wouldn’t eat fish, shellfish, nothing. I ate nothing. I ate dry salads.”

How much does Webster Groves love Olive & Oak?
“We always said at the beginning, ‘We hope we’re as good for Webster as Webster is for us,’ and I think that relationship has worked out great so far. We had somebody write an email to us that said, ‘I think since Olive & Oak moved in, our property value has gone up 25 percent.’ I know it's a joke, but just the idea that we’ve been so good for the community and people feel like their house is more valuable being near us? That felt great.”

How’s your first executive chef gig going?
“It’s super challenging and super scary and overwhelming at first, and then it just becomes the house you’re running. You feel like the mom of the house. I had two dishwashers call me mom on two separate occasions: ‘Mom, do you know – Oh, Jesse! Sorry!’ … I think my job is to be the person who has the answers, to be the person who makes the decisions, but it’s not any more important than anybody else.”

Which chefs do you admire?
“Big-time chefs that I like to watch and listen to and learn from a lot? Jacques Pépin. ... He’s so great to watch. To watch him bone a chicken with only two cuts is incredible. He makes it easy and drinks wine the whole time and he’s like, ‘Don't even worry. This is easy. The chicken wants you to do it.’”

What’s your post-shift meal?
“I eat a big salad out of a huge bowl. It’s not even necessarily a big salad, but it’s definitely a big bowl. I know that it will be easy to clean later, and I can really toss it. … And a beer. Civil Life Brown is my absolute favorite. Beer or a rosé. You can’t get away from rosé here, and I don't mind that one bit. We are a yes way rosé place.”

What’s your least favorite part of the job?
“The attention and having to be interviewed by people about myself – that's probably the worst part of all of it, no offense. It’s the worst. People come in here and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, we’re meeting you!’ Yes, I’m just another person in the room with you right now; this is not a big deal. The weird big deal that people put on it is probably the hardest thing for me to get used to.”

What’s the nicest compliment a customer has given you?
“One person said, ‘I don't even eat cauliflower. I don't like cauliflower, but I know I’ll get it because everything has surprised me.’ To know that people trust me enough to try something they have verified they don't like – that’s pretty incredible.”

Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine.