Jeffrey Mauro just wanted to cook you dinner. And there’s no question that he was qualified to do so, with a history that includes Charlie Trotter’s, opening Bradley Ogden’s restaurants in Vegas, and the short-lived Powerhouse among other local spots. He wasn’t some pancake flipper dreaming of making pot roast, he has the skills. But you apparently couldn’t get your head around dinner at a popular breakfast spot called Jam, so after weeks of a dining room that was emptier than it ought to be, Jam recently gave up on the idea and he reluctantly let part of the team he’d built and honed to dinner-ready perfection go. Even so, he’s not going to let you rest there. He’s not going to let you settle for comfort breakfast to be eaten bleary-eyed and hung over. He’s out to push the boundaries of breakfast by introducing the world’s first breakfast tasting menu, some Thursday after Labor Day. (He’s not so crazy as to try it on Sunday morning.) And with it he hopes to make his name again— not least because some other Jeff Mauro from Chicago, the Sandwich King, is suddenly using their mutual name on the Food Network. Or at least he can be Jeffrey Mauro the Breakfast King. We spoke with him one recent afternoon at Jam.
What happened with dinners here?
I think people just couldn’t get past thinking of us as a breakfast and brunch place. They couldn’t make that leap to thinking of us as a place where you’d go for dinner. Even though the room is nice, and we had the liquor license. But the name is still Jam, people couldn’t get past that. And we just had to say, let’s just stick to what we do.
I think ultimately what we’re going to do is fine-tune this and then expand. If we go into a second Jam, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., that’s great. Or we decide with my partners-investors, we say, let’s get to the dinner restaurant and we’ll call it something else. We still have the Traffic Jam, our food truck, which we haven’t had out on the road as much as we’d like, so we’ll do more with that, now that we’re not spread so thin.
Because you came from regular restaurants, right? How did you end up doing breakfast here?
I was at Trotter’s in the early 2000s, and then I was the executive sous chef for Bradley Ogden, opening at Caesar’s Palace. I opened both of his restaurants, which were really the first places to work at bringing fine dining to Vegas, when they realized that someone who comes into your hotel to eat is going to pass a lot of slot machines going in and out. Bradley was fantastic to work for, he was really striving for some unreal stuff, he was in the restaurant every day, and we got the James Beard award for best new restaurant— the first time it ever went to Vegas, the first time it had even ever left New York City. So not only was it huge for Bradley Ogden and the casino, but for the city of Las Vegas, it was on the map for the first time.
I went to North Pond, and then I went back with Bradley, and I was supposed to have a one-year stage at a three Michelin star in Italy and that fell through at the last minute because of visa problems, they called me with three weeks to go and said they weren’t allowed to take stages because the unemployment was so high in Italy. So I went to Europe anyway and worked in San Sebastian for a few months.
I came back and I started working for Bruce Sherman again for another year and a half, and then I took an executive chef job at a place called La Pomme Rouge which was in the old Sugar space, which is where I met Jerry [Suqi, co-owner and manager of Jam]. It was a fine dining lounge, if you will, that turned into a nightclub, which I didn’t really sign up for. So, then I went to Powerhouse— I passed up a really outstanding opportunity to go to Powerhouse, I loved John Peters who was hired as chef there and I was executive sous chef, I thought the food was great. But it was a victim of bad timing, I was there when the main guys, Peters, Scott Norman who was the beverage director who came from Alinea, and Mitchell Schmieding who was from Trotter’s and was the GM all left on the same day. That was really tough, I was left holding the bag. And then ultimately, we just didn’t get paid for a couple of months…
So after I left there, Jerry was trying to open Chickpea and I needed money after Powerhouse, so he said give me a hand and then we can figure something out. And after four or five months I was ready to move on, and so Jerry said, let’s open your own place, and so we opened Jam down on Damen in the summer of ‘09. And then last year we moved up here, to Logan Square.
Is there any difference between the two locations in terms of what the audience wants?
Oh yeah. There are things that sold like crazy on Damen that we can’t give away here.
Not buttermilk pancakes. But whatever our seasonal pancake was— now I think we finally have one that sells, our zucchini pancake is working here. I don’t know if they’re more health conscious in this area or what.
We changed quite a few things from the other location. One thing that sold there that doesn’t sell here is the quiche. Here we have a smoked salmon on the menu that we pretty much sell out of every weekend, and we couldn’t sell it to save our lives down there.
In the fall we had a corned beef hash down there, and it’s like pulling teeth to sell it here. So I took it off, and we went months without it, and then Jerry walks in one day with some different platters and says, we need to do a hash. And I’m saying, I don’t want to do a hash, not now. And that day a guy comes in with his wife or girlfriend or whatever and he looks at the menu and then they get up and leave— because we didn’t have a hash. Okay, I get it, I’ll put a hash on the menu! I mean, I was in Vegas— we just got the Hash House here, and look how much money they make selling hashes. They make millions of dollars.
Anyway, you think they’re similar neighborhoods, but the reality is, they’re pretty divergent. It was easier to park down there. Here, it’s more walk-in traffic. We get a lot of traffic from the market on Sunday, obviously.
Do you buy stuff from the market and take it right into cooking?
Yeah. Most of the farmers get here early anyway, maybe we’ll call a day or so before and tell them we want a case of corn or whatever. We have one farmer right out front here, Randy, from… god, I can’t think what the name of his farm is, he’s just Randy. I feel really bad about that (laughs).
You said you’ve also wrestled with bacon. What’s your problem with bacon?
We make everything in house. The one exception is chorizo, which is in our Spanish omelet and we don’t make, because we couldn’t keep up with it. We attempted it a couple of times at the previous location, but couldn’t sustain. And we have the same problem with bacon, if we start making it we’ll never be able to keep up, we won’t have the room. The only bacon we had was what’s on the turkey club, and that way if someone really demanded bacon, it was there.
Then we started getting some mail, strangely, saying, you need to have bacon. Jerry, who’s been in the neighborhood for a while, was getting feedback saying, how can you guys be a breakfast place and not have bacon? So all right, clearly we’re not gettin’ anywhere with this, so we just started researching and located some artisanal guys and got fifteen different kinds of bacon in here, cured, uncured, smoked, whatever, Newsome’s, Nueske’s, The Smoking Goose who do a jowl bacon which is awesome. We had a wild boar bacon, which we’re showcasing this weekend. And sometimes I do make some, and then it’s says “Chef’s Bacon” is today’s bacon.
But now that we’re not doing dinner, that should free up some time to get into making more of these things ourselves.
So now that dinner’s off the table, so to speak, what else are you working on?
We’re working on really, really tightening up the bolts to have some more showcase breakfast items so we can do a breakfast tasting. Which sounds pretty crazy. I don’t know how well that will really work. It’ll be a Tuesday or a Thursday— not the Tuesday after Labor Day because that’s dead. I’m aiming for Thursday because them I can rebuild from the Green City Market on Wednesday. The idea is a mix of signature dishes and things that we’re working on now.
I sure don’t want to try it on Sunday, but I want Jam to be more of a destination. To be a place that you go for something unique. So it’ll be a tasting of four things, without filling people up; I think our breakfast dishes are pretty well balanced. Most breakfast places leave you dead for the rest of the day, I don’t want to do that. It’s not going to be about stuffing yourself.