Rising Above the Butcher Block: Chef Jacob Cheatham Part 1
Words and Photos by David Cumming
A Three Part Series
As a young boy in Akron, Ohio, Jacob Cheatham’s mother worked the graveyard shift at a local Applebee’s. And when she came home, her work didn’t stop.
“I remember making pizza dough with her,” Jacob said. “And that was where it started. Making food was calming for me.”
These are all memories now, like the Polish Kopytka or kebab found between Barberton and Cleveland, Ohio, or weekend barbeques at Uncle Curtis’ house. It’s how Jacob understood food back then- -this is what you do as a family. You provide for one another. And it was when Uncle Curtis took Jacob to a Texas Roadhouse that he first saw raw pig meat stacked on a butcher block. Barely able to reach the counter, he was eager to learn about such animals of the world.
After years of thinking that food came from the grocery store aisles, the veil had been lifted. Instead, it had a deeper story. Jacob realized that the butcher had a relationship with the people he served and that he was a part of something much greater happening.
“That’s where I thought, I want to do this. I can do this for more than just my family. This can impact everybody. Everybody needs to eat,” Jacob said.
Jacob and his mother moved west to Colorado Springs when he was in middle school. He had what he called your “quintessential cooking job”; a cook at Wendy’s, and as a trainer at a Ruby Tuesday. But Jacob knew there was more to the food industry than a deep fryer and a chocolate malt.
Then one morning he walked down the street to a now-closed Johnny Carino’s. He confidently opened an already cracked door and went straight to the manager doing the morning inventory.
“I said, I don’t want to start at the salad spot. I don’t want to do anything else,” Jacob told her. “I want the hardest job you have because I want to know if I can do it.” Baffled, she told him to drop in on a Friday night to watch a man named Ramon cook on the sauté line. “I came back,” Jacob said. “And I was mesmerized.”
Jacob has a slew of painful memories trying out different recipes on his family. Despite his lack of formal training, he kept at it, reading numerous culinary books, including those by Chef Anthony Bourdain.
“Bourdain’s laid back, badass attitude made chef life look cool,” Jacob said. “Like he had seen the end of the earth and had come back to tell us it was going to be okay. It’s just food.”
Years later, while visiting one of his friends in culinary school, Jacob lost a bet and ate a habanero pepper. With tears in his eyes, he remembered thinking, “People are out there that cook with this? How could you eat something this hot?” His friend would bring ingredients to Jacob and they would experiment together. “That was always really inspiring and moving for me to keep trying new things.”
Jacob moved his knives to The Blue Star, and then to Loyal Coffee Co., where he crafted their full menu. Over the years, he forged relationships with local farmers and ranchers including Corner Post Meats, who tapped him on the shoulder to curate a dinner for A Grazing Life.
Colorado’s short growing season challenges chefs’ creativity for their menus. Jacob said, “But I think to educate people is what makes people curious about wanting to go to a farm and experience something like a farm dinner.”
For his meals, Jacob usually starts with the arrangement and plating. He’ll work from the end, taking bits and pieces. The look, the feel, then the taste.
“Then it’s like, okay, but how do I really want this to taste? Or be interactive?” he said. As he speaks, he scrutinizes A Grazing Life brunch laid out on cloth and table for his guests. Rhubarb jellies and scones. Fruit mostarda with croissants and lemon curds. “What happens when you get a little piece from this side of the table? How do I compose this dish so that it’s interesting to eat throughout the whole day?”
“The main thing I think about is how I want people to experience food,” he said. “I want everything to feel like the ease of when you’re at your grandma’s house. Like when you’re there, your grandma isn’t running around like a chicken with her head cut off. Grandma’s calm. She asks, ‘You want something to drink, baby? Okay, I’ll be right back.’”
As the second brunch course was presented, people passed dishes and laughed with each other. A re-teaching of something that had been lost.
“My favorite thing about food is that connection,” Jacob said. “Meals are better shared.”