Jacob Cheatham does well in the deep end.
Since he was a kid in Barberton, Ohio, Loyal Coffee’s 30-year-old chef has been learning by throwing himself into sink-or-swim situations and rising to the top.
His father was a pastor and a steelworker, his mother was a floor manager for Apples Market, Cheatham was the second of four kids — and he was about 10 when he decided food would be his life’s work.
“Right when I became old enough to realize food was synonymous for family and a good time, that’s when I became addicted to it — I always wanted to be around it,” he said. “I would watch my mother cook when I was really, really young but then the cooking responsibilities really moved to my sister Tiffany, and Tiffany cooked all the time. … When she left, then it was my job. So I was 13 trying to figure out how to cook for a house with five people.”
The family made their way from Ohio to Colorado Springs on a Greyhound bus when Cheatham was about to start middle school. His career path has wound its way around Colorado kitchens: Carino’s Italian Grill, Life Care Center of Littleton, Plate World Cuisine, Cheyenne Mountain Resort — and he notes The Blue Star as the place where he really came into his own, mentored by Chef Will Merwin.
But Plate World Cuisine was where he got the “horrifying” promotion that showed him he really was cut out for the career. It was Friday night, Cheatham recalls, and the sauté cook had gotten into an argument with the chef.
“They fired him on the spot. The chef came over to my station and was like, ‘You’re working sauté tonight, don’t f— anything up.’ … I had no idea how to make anything,” he said. “I run out and get this menu from the host station and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what do I do?’ and I’m just spinning in circles.”
The other chefs had his back, though, and Cheatham made it through — Muenster-stuffed Kobe meatballs, pan-seared half chickens and all.
“That’s what really pushed me into ‘This is real and this is really cool, and I can actually probably do this.’ If he could throw me on a station on a Friday night and not completely crash and burn … then I can do this.
Today, Cheatham still pushes himself. As well as being the chef for Loyal, he’s a consultant for restaurants around the city — when they need a new menu or a new concept, they call him — and through the summer he puts on wine and farm dinners for A Grazing Life at Corner Post Ranch.
He talked to the Business Journal about the food scene in the Springs, being his own worst critic, and big plans for the future.
What’s the best thing about working at Loyal?
The best thing about Loyal is the challenge of the space, how small that is, and how limited the equipment is there — because it’s a coffee space, it’s not really a restaurant. But through those limitations we try to create something that’s really memorable that’s going to pair well with the coffee and the style of things they do there.
So you have to be creative in different ways?
Oh yeah. At Loyal, I work off of two induction burners — that’s all I have to cook with, and we do pretty much everything there. Close to 90 percent of our menu we make in-house, fresh. So I do our pickles, we make our own mustard… as much as we possibly can, we just do there. It takes a little finagling sometimes. At Blue Star we had [about 24 burners]. Going from that, and four ovens, to two induction burners — it can be crazy.
What’s the first thing you remember thinking, I’m really good at making this?
Oh man, that’s a hard one — I still struggle with that now. I am my worst critic. I feel like I could rip apart anything. I’m like, ‘I could make this better here, I could make this better here,’ to the point where my old chef and mentor, Chef Will, used to tell me, ‘Jacob, this is really great, and of course you can make this better, but think about simplifying it. What could you take away from this dish and it still be just as good?’ I always have to think that way. But probably Cream of Wheat was the first. Cream of Wheat! Because that’s the first thing I remember cooking that I just destroyed. I messed it up so bad, and I had made this really big batch of it, and my mom was like, ‘How did you — how did you do this?’ And it was before I was supposed to touch the stove … So for the next two weeks that was my thing: I need to figure out how to make this Cream of Wheat. When I got it right, I was like, ‘Oh my God! Success!’
How did you get into this work?
Well, I’ve never been to culinary school. How I really learned how to cook — once I decided this is what I wanted to do — my dad would take me to the store and he would let me get five spices that I didn’t know, and he would take me home and he would have me try them just raw, and then he would tell me that I had to cook something with them. So from a really young age I was learning different spices and what it tastes like, how they cooked, and my family was my guinea pig. They would allow a certain amount for the budget for me to go out and just play with something, and I would read as many cookbooks as I could get my hands on, and I watched Food Network constantly, trying to grab some ideas. … It’s been on-the-job training and a lot of work at home. That even translates now to where I feel like I’m never, ever, ever going to be done learning. There’s so much to know in our industry and so much to do, that someone’s always creating something new every day, or they’re pushing a boundary where somebody has said ‘No’ before. … Cooking is super humbling as well as gratifying at the same time.
Is the Springs a good place to be in the restaurant business?
I think so. The Springs is growing exponentially where the food scene is involved. For a long time we have kind of lived in the shadow of Denver and I think soon we’re going to be right on par with those guys. … That’s happening a lot quicker than most people think.
Tell us about the farm dinners.
The farm dinners are really cool. It’s out on a local ranch called Corner Post Ranch, and there’s another company, A Grazing Life, that puts on the parties out there. They’ll give you a tour of the whole farm, let you see all the animals, walk around a little bit, and they’ll have chefs from all over the city. I’m doing two dinners out there this year, and a brunch. It’s a different chef every other Saturday from July to September. … We have really hard-working farmers and ranchers here in Colorado Springs, and I think to highlight what they’re doing and pair it with really good, conscious chefs is a great thing and to allow people to see what is going on all around the city. … Everything is super fresh, super local, it’s really amazing.
What are your goals?
A big goal of mine, which is kind of on the low, is that I’m trying to get things together to maybe start my own restaurant. I’m in the process right now of writing a business plan, and meeting with a couple of investors, seeing what could we do, where could I do it. That’s super big and scary at the same time, but it seems like every time I take a step in that direction a positive thing happens so I just told myself, ‘I’m going to keep taking steps. We’ll see what happens and if it falls through it falls through — but right now we’re on the path.’ So we’ll see… I’ve got more pieces in play than I think I care to recognize. It’s a pleasant thought, but also a really scary thought. I find myself smiling and sweating all at the same time.
What inspires you?
My mother. When my mom moved us out here from Ohio, she worked three jobs. I mean, tirelessly it seemed, she would manage all of us, and she would work her jobs, keep the house in as much order as she could, and still had time to put out fires — because we were a terror at school. And I didn’t realize how hard that was until I started in this career where I was working 12 to 14 hours, and I started thinking, ‘My mom would do this, plus some, and then have to go to the school and explain to people why I’m inappropriate.’ I just have no idea how she did it, I have no idea how she just didn’t like, sell me off. … Every time I get tired, every time something is hard, every time I reach something and I just don’t think I’m going to make it over that hump, I think about my mother and I think about how hard she worked and what she was able to achieve, and I just tell myself, ‘You’re her son. Figure it out. Make it work.’