Executive Chef Joe Peterson has spent the last 15 years in Galesburg, interacting with and building connections with local businesses. Now, he has joined Knox’s Dining Services as a replacement for Jason Crouch, who left near the end of last year. Peterson shared about his beginnings as a short-order cook and the value he places on supporting local food suppliers.
The Knox Student: Where were you educated? What brought you to Knox?
Joe Peterson: I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis in 2000, graduated in 2002. So, kind of the French, classic background of culinary arts.
TKS: And where have you been working before you came to Knox?
JP: I did a lot of time a Chez Willy’s here in town, where I got to meet lots of Knox students that worked there over the time. We had several throughout the years, lots that would stay for many years, you know? Through their whole years, start when they were freshman and just work all the way through [senior year]… some even stayed around while they did their post-baccs and things like that. So, that was most of my time, I was there 10 plus years, working with them. Bill was really great to work with, a great chef to learn under.
TKS: Can you share some of your first impressions of Knox?
JP: The really cool thing that really intrigued me about coming here was that there was so much diversity in the food that I can prepare. That I have vegan, which I’m not so familiar with, but Rudy, who is our main cook that does the Roots program is vegan, and I worked with him before at Chez Willy’s. So, now reconnecting with him, as he’s trained for eight years, it’s been great. So I get to learn these things from him that he’s learn and broaden my career on this stuff. This is an ever educating job. . . He’s really amazing, he actually had a great compliment last night on the pho that he made, vegan pho. He does a really great job on that stuff. I know a lot of people have that misconception that vegan or vegetarian food can be bland, but he really packs a lot of flavor into his dishes.
TKS: Are there any main goals that you have as the new chef? For this year or beyond?
JP: Really working with the students to make sure that we have enough diversity in the food to make sure that they’re happy. I mean, getting the emails from them so far, and we’re trying to work with them and build what they want, their needs, dietary needs. Making sure that we’re accommodating students, our clients, our guests. And that’s my biggest goal, is to keep working and build on that. I know they already have a great relationship here, it’s just working forward with that and making sure I make the right accommodations for everybody. We can’t hit every goal, but we want to, you know? You try to best you can do with everything.
TKS: What’s your favorite thing to make?
JP: Okay! So everybody asks this question and I really love doing small parties and just doing something that’s just I walk in and I just find whatever I can do and become very creative and come up with a dish at that point. The thing that I’m known for is my soups. Even during culinary school, it was ‘Alright Joe, make the soups, do this for us, we want your soup.’ But I don’t have a signature dish – everybody’s asked me for years – and I just don’t have one. The first thing I ever made when I was nine was steak and that was because my parents grew up in the 50s and the 60s so everything was well-done and I couldn’t eat it. I didn’t want dried out meat. So they’re like, ‘Make something, go ahead and see what you can do, you’re nine.’
TKS: So building on that, what made you want to become a chef?
JP: Honestly, it started when I was working in a short order restaurant and I fell in love with the energy of putting out food. I grew up in a very small town, 700 people, and so my grandma’s in there, and my family and my friends. And cooking and seeing them all excited about the food I was making just really inspired me to change and say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ So I talked to my father about it and we looked into it. There wasn’t many cooking shows when I was in school, it was Yan Can Cook and Julia Child were about the only two, but we would watch those and learn inspirations and try recipes at home. Just me and him working together inspired me to go with this.
TKS: Anything you want to add?
JP: Just that I’m excited to be here and grateful to work in this kind of environment. The things that Bon Apptit inspires to do, you know, the farm-to-fork things. Pushing for those locally sourced foods is really, as a chef, great for me because then we get great quality products that we utilize. And that’s always, being a chef, been a goal of mine; let’s find the best products local, let’s help the local businesses. Being that I’ve been here for 15 years, you build a relationship with the town that you’re in and that’s a part of it, to help support everybody and work together.