Super Hero

Michael Nagrant / 09.19.07

Before gearing up to open Jackson Park Bar and Grill (444 N Wabash Ave) next January, chef Jason Paskewitz took advantage of his lazy summer; he skipped the beach and instead headed for the river: the Mississippi that runs through Memphis. There he joined Ben Ford of L.A. restaurant Ford’s Filling Station, Kenny Kohn of New York’s famed Katz’s Delicatessen, and Margaux Sky of Art Café and Bakery in San Luis Obispo, California. The four chefs competed in a $10,000 winner-take-all sandwich-off filmed for Food Network Challenge. We caught up with the trash-talking Queens native for some behind-the-scenes details.

Growing up in Queens with all the great delis around, do you have any favorite sandwiches?
The veal Parmesan hero from Rocco’s Pizzeria up the block from my parents’ house. My parents live five minutes from LaGuardia, and when I get picked up from the airport, there’s always one sitting on my mom’s stove. If it’s not there, my lazy ass has to walk up the block to get one. Locally, I like Manny’s corned beef or pastrami, because it reminds me of New York.

Did you score some good barbecue in Memphis?
I had some of the best ribs, dry rubbed and smoked at Rendezvous. That’s gonna be the second concept I do with Phil Lotsoff, my partner. I want to do a barbecue pit in Chicago.

Which sandwiches did you make in the competition and what was your inspiration?
Four of them. One: lobster club with mango relish. My parents have a summer cottage on Cape Cod, and you go to roadside stands and it’s lobsters and clam rolls and that’s it. Two: spaghetti and meatball panini on crispy garlic bread. My Dad’s mom used to make him leftover spaghetti sandwiches all the time. When I was little, my dad made them for me. Three: peanut butter and banana, homemade banana bread dipped in egg wash and griddled, plus bananas rolled in Japanese bread crumbs and fried. I made my own peanut butter and drizzled lavender honey on the whole thing. It was a nod to Elvis, because we were in Memphis. Four: braised short rib club on sourdough bread with crispy pancetta chips, slow-roasted red peppers, aioli and watercress…the kind of food we’ll be doing at the restaurant.

Did you peg anyone as your big adversary before the competition?
Ben Ford. He’s kind of a laid-back guy and has a quiet, cocky confidence about him. The producers said not to mention that his dad is Harrison Ford. The first thing I told him was, “You look like your dad.” He was talking a little bit of smack the night before. I told him I would Chewbacca-slap him across the mouth.

We heard you were practicing an Elvis dance for the competition. Did you do it?
I did. Yeah, but we’ll see if it gets edited out. I’m sure there’s a lot of things that got edited, especially sound bites that came out of my mouth.

A lot of profanity then?
Oh just nonstop. I talked a lot of smack, all directed at Ben Ford. My panini grill faltered…an electrical short, and I blamed Ben Ford, said I saw [him] lean over into my kitchen and pull the plug. I told the judges I understand a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, but he can’t cook. If my daddy was Han Solo, he could write me a check to open a restaurant, too. The producers were like, “Keep that.” I was like, Oh my God, this is awful. What am I doing?

What’s harder, a night on the line or Food Network Challenge?
At my age? A night on the line. It wears you out. I still do it all the time to remind myself what I’m putting my guys through. Plus you have to do it to show your guys you’re still better than them.

Do you keep up with cooking shows?
One I do like to watch for pure enjoyment is Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen. This year I’ve watched a little Top Chef because of Dale [Levitski]. Who knows how much of that is scripted, though. I mean, when I sat down for this, the producers came out and said, “Listen, more than likely you’re not gonna win. Focus on making good television.”

If you did TV again, what would you do?
I’d like my own cooking show. It would be a late-night cooking show on HBO. Actually, it might have to be on Cinemax.

Like Def Cooking Jam?
It’s not like I would just have naked women on the show. It might be more like a cooking talk show and doing some demos where I could say this was a dish I cooked for this girl at my house once, and before it was done, her panties were already off.

This article first appeared in Chicago magazine in a different form.