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'An abundance of good food'
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
He's a chef and his name is Jeff Cook, so he answers to Chef Jeff. The man with the two-pun name may have been born to do precisely what he's doing which is to whip up the bounty of Baker County into fabulous dishes which he will not only serve you, but teach you how to make.
Now that's real cooking.
Upstairs at Ma Bell's restaurant, the former Phone Company restaurant still under renovation at 1926 First St., Chef Jeff busied himself one day last week making lunch for a pair of visitors. What's unique about the meal and it's one of the things that brought Chef Jeff and his wife, Cindy, to the Eagle Valley last month after previous stays as an executive chef in Arizona and Alaska is that, except for the cream and the tortillas, the chicken tacos Nampa style, the fresh carrot soup, and the plum cobbler Chef Jeff served this day feature only produce and poultry grown right here in Baker County.
The carrot soup is especially pleasing, and Chef Jeff gives credit where credit is due: he picked the baby carrots out of the ground the very morning he cooked up the delightful meal.
"You people have an unbelievable bounty of good food here," Cook says, comparing what's grown here favorably to what farmers raise in southwest France. He names everything from plums and potatoes to grapes and walnuts while extolling the virtues of his new home along Eagle Creek near Richland.
"You combine that good local stuff with world-class labor and the product will be world-class, too," Cook says.
Area food-lovers will have the chance this weekend to decide that for themselves. On Saturday from noon to 7 p.m., Cook will join other Baker County chefs for the Taste of Baker City during Fall Festival in downtown Baker City.
For between 1 and 3 tokens, Cook will offer Taste of Baker participants cassoulet ("a classic southern France dish," Cook says) with Keating lamb sausages (the lambs are from the ranch of May Heriza, owner of Ma Bell's), chocolate pate, stuffed pickles, cornbread with roasted peppers and onions, and fresh-pressed apple cider.
Then, beginning Friday, Oct. 1, and extending each Friday during fall after that, Heriza and the Cooks will offer "Weekend Takeout" every Friday at the restaurant between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
The idea is to come in and pick up a "comfort meal" for the family or for an impromptu party, Heriza said. Each dish will be ready to bake or microwave at home.
The menu will vary from Friday to Friday, but will include shepherd's pie, beef Bourgogne, chicken pot pie, chicken curry and fruit cobblers.
In addition to that new service, Ma Bell's plans special dinners on three upcoming Friday nights Oct. 15, Nov. 12, and Dec. 10. Cost and menu items vary, reservations are required as seating is limited.
Why not the Eagle Valley?
Heriza met the Cooks one Saturday in July at the Farmers Market.
"Part of the charm of the Farmers Market," Heriza says, "is that you get to meet lots of people with culinary skills."
Heriza, a baker who provides her baked goods for Sorbinots each morning, believes the Cooks are a good fit with her business.
"He does the kind of cooking I can't do," she says. "He's amazing at bringing the local bounty to the table."
Chef Jeff has 30 years experience as a chef and restaurateur and is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Most recently he was a chef and co-owner of Cook's Market Cafe in Sedona, Ariz.
The 70-seat restaurant "was hopping for a while, but then the economy went south," Cook says.
With the economy south, he and Cindy headed north to Alaska, made one more quick foray to Arizona, then set their sights on the Northwest, where their grown children live.
"I can't do this seven days a week anymore," he says, but he can contribute a day or two each week on top of his day job, which is making the hand-crafted kitchen knives he uses at Ma Bell's.
"Without a love for what you're doing," he says, "you really shouldn't be doing it."