When it comes to his passion for well-prepared food, well, Jereme McFarland “blames” his mom.
OK, at least partly. She was a banquet chef who not only taught him the ropes as a chef but also raised McFarland cooking Southern comfort food, from pork chops to biscuits and gravy. But his father cooked as well, and so did other relatives. He watched Food Network, kept a close eye on the work of Emeril Lagasse.
But as McFarland, now 36, grew up, he found fewer people his age knew how to cook. So, making sure he had a good meal at any given time fell to him and helped lead him on a path toward being executive chef at Bourbons Bistro, a position he assumed two-and-a-half years ago.
“I wanted to continue eating well, so that’s why I learned to cook,” he says.
Makes sense. No one else is going to do it? Handle it yourself.
He learned a sense of discipline from his parents, particularly his father, who worked in construction, but McFarland took it a step farther by enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps after high school. He had worked at McDonald’s as a teenager and enlisted specifically as a cook.
“I figured I had already mastered McDonald’s, so I might as well step up to the chow hall, right?” he says.
There, he learned how to cook for large numbers of people, among other skills he would utilize throughout his career in food.
“I learned how to keep a very clean facility,” McFarland says, smiling broadly.
After four years in the service, he went immediately to culinary school at Sullivan University and continued down the road working in restaurants, including an eight-year stint at Bonefish Grill, where he learned more about the business side of running a restaurant.
He credits Brian Norman and Trey Schmidt, under whom he worked, for that education.
“I think about those two guys all the time,” McFarland says. “They used to coach me on a lot of things I didn’t understand until I became the boss.”
He traveled around, doing store openings, and was on track to move up the ranks in management — but what he really wanted was to cook.
After working two jobs for a time to pay off student loans, McFarland found himself at Bourbons Bistro working under former chef Jeff Bridges. It proved to be another educational experience, including how to assemble a good team.
For McFarland, it was about finding not only the right talent, but the right people to make up a team. Sous chef Sam Varju is his right-hand man, while fellow sous chef Justin Shewell handles most of the dessert work. McFarland’s cousin, Dustin Allen, had never worked in a restaurant previously, but now does a mean job working the grill.
“I call them my little ragtag band of misfits,” McFarland says with a smile.
For Bourbons Bistro’s summer menu, it’s a team that’s cranking out some popular dishes. One is Willie’s Tomato Toast, which was inspired by McFarland’s dad. Another is an heirloom tomato salad, topped with basil pesto, crumbled goat cheese and more.
And while the menu has changed quite a bit since McFarland took over — Bridges stepped down to start a family — the signature fried oysters and garlic and goat cheese spread remain from the old menu. In addition, the mussels with tomato, onion, garlic and white wine sauce are a popular mainstay.
During a demo of preparing the mussels, McFarland says, “I took these off the menu once and had people walking out.” (That likely won’t happen again.)
He says he feels like the restaurant has improved, noting that online reviews have gradually gotten a bit more consistently good. He says they are up to about a 4.6 (out of 5) average, whereas they previously hovered closer to 4.4 in prior years. Not that he’s paying too much attention to what Yelpers are saying day to day, but the bad reviews hit him hard sometimes.
“That’s probably where I get stabbed the deepest,” he says. “The 1s and 2s, the really bad reviews, are the ones I read closely. It hurts to try to accept that. You can only fix so many of those problems.”
But becoming a head chef is something he likens to when he enlisted in the Marine Corps — he didn’t know what to expect, but knew he had to take the journey to see where it would lead and what he would learn.
“It’s like when you’re on that bus and you’re scared to death,” he says, recalling his first day in the service. “It’s like, ‘I don’t know how I got myself into this one.’ I guess I look at being a chef same way.”
His work ethic, learned from the military and from his hard-working father, has him doing whatever it takes to get the job done and keep Bourbons Bistro among the city’s top dining destinations. He views being a chef as a craft, a skill no one can take away from him and will be eternally valuable.
McFarland’s hope is to one day use that skill he’s developed to open his own restaurant, and it wouldn’t be much different than Bourbons Bistro — white tablecloths, classic Southern dishes, food and atmosphere that anyone and everyone could appreciate.
“I’m not going to give up on my dream,” he says. “I can’t. I don’t know what else I would do — go work at Ford?”
If he did that, who would prepare the mussels?