Kitchen Inquisition: Jean Jouvens

Executive chef Jean Jouvens is a natural when it comes to cooking. The Nassau native was sent to Miami by his parents as a child, where he decided to teach himself the art of cuisine. He honed his culinary skills, learning the fundamentals of the business by landing several restaurant jobs and working with acclaimed chefs like Robert Hass and Michael Gilligan, adding restaurants such as Baleen and Atrio to his resume. Several years and a bachelor’s degree later, he’s running his own kitchen at SAWA, a chic, dual concept restaurant serving Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine in Coral Gables’ Merrick Park. Chef Jouvens actively participates in charity events and is now working on a children’s book that promotes healthy eating for kids.

I’m sure all the dishes on your menus are like your children, but if you had to choose only one dish, which one are you most proud of?

Black Sea Pasta: This dish is made with homemade fettucini. We use black squid ink and mold the pasta by hand. The pasta is complemented by a tomato sauce and a medley of seafood, including a half Maine lobster, shrimp, scallops, and calamari. It is a more traditional dish and is made with a lot of love.

Most popular item on the menu?

SAWA’s kebabs are extremely popular. The filet mignon kebabs are a staple dish, but the dark meat chicken kebabs fair pretty well, too. The darker meat is more tender and adds more flavor. The kebabs are one of our best sellers. We perfectly pair the kebabs with basil pine nut jasmine rice or cranberry mint candied walnut cous cous.

How would you describe Miami’s dining scene?

One word: evolving. The eyes of the culinary world are on us. We are not yet booming, but we are shining. Our dining scene becomes bigger and bigger everyday. We are certainly growing.

At what point did you realize you were destined to be a chef?

It was about nine years ago at Whole Foods. I’d walk through the aisles, vibing to the soothing music and as I passed certain ingredients I would begin to put thought behind what I could create. I would conceptualize dishes in my head. My love for food then steered me in this direction.

The 5 ingredients every kitchen should have?

Salt and pepper; olive oil, garlic; cayenne pepper; and chicken. And I’d probably add a sixth must have or make this a tie at number one: love.

The 5 utensils every kitchen should have?

Knives; sauté pan; food processor (not a blender); a microwave; and most definitely, a George Foreman Grill for those late night sandwiches.

First dish you learned to make?

This is a toss up. My first food experience where I observed cooking was in Haiti. I was 8 years old, and my mom would take us on these long trips around the country. We landed in a village where they were performing a voodoo ceremony. Then, I watched as the village people made a crab dish wrapped in banana leaves with plantain, rice and different spices. They placed it on a charcoal fire. It was the most delicious dish and my first cooking encounter.

Then, for me, every story begins and ends with a woman. When I was 17, I was dating a Peruvian girl and went to visit her family in Peru. Her grandmother taught me how to make Papa Rellena.This was my first hands on experience.

Favorite dish to make at home?

I don’t cook at home as I am always at the restaurant. But when I do, I turn to pasta. People love it, and it’s quick to make. People ask me what makes a pasta dish. My take on it is the sauce you use.

What’s your favorite food to eat? In other words, what could you live off of for the rest of your life if you had to?

I love to eat a Haitian dish called Legumes. It’s made of eggplant, cayote,spinach, watercress, and has shrimp, crab or pork. This dish is heavenly.

Tell us a little more about your restaurant.

Summed up, SAWA is cool! We fuse two concepts together. We have a chill environment. You can enjoy art, entertainment. People never know what to expect when they dine for the first time, but after they do they keep coming back.

If there’s one tip or piece of advice you could give to all aspiring chefs out there, what would it be?

Be human! Chefs – all chefs – are people. We are cooks. We cook food. Understand that this is a career. But also be genuine. Have fun with it. People will respect you more. And when you have the opportunity to helm a kitchen, remember: You are only as good as the people you work with.

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