HE MAY BE just 22, but in chef years, Jesse Vega is a seasoned pro. An executive chef at Gigi in Old City at the age of 21, the Queens, N.Y., native will soon head up the kitchen at Azul, a Mexican eatery opening in early March at 10th and Spruce.
"When I hired Jesse, it was clear to me from the beginning that he had something special," said George Markakis, who owned Gigi before expanding to Azul. "His flavors blew me away from the start."
Although not formally trained, Vega has been cooking since he was allowed to use the stove. The son of a Spanish/Puerto Rican father and an English mother, Vega grew up eating traditional Puerto Rican dishes, along with a mix of American and Italian cuisine. Although his parents were adventurous restaurantgoers, they usually left the three kids at home.
"I remember going to a [T.G.I.] Fridays when I graduated from junior high school and thinking it was the best thing ever," he said.
The culinary tide turned when Vega's family moved to Rocky Point, Long Island, N.Y. He started reading cookbooks and food magazines, and experimenting in the kitchen. "The summer before I was a sophomore in high school, I started to feel comfortable in the kitchen," he said.
A visit to a local restaurant, the well-regarded La Plage in Wading River, gave Vega the idea that this whole cooking thing might just turn into a career. He asked the chef for a tour, then for a job, and soon he was working after school and on Saturdays.
"I cleaned a lot of mussels," he recalled.
Being the youngest guy in the kitchen wasn't easy, and Vega admits to having a bit of an attitude. "I guess I had something to prove," he said. "I was on this trip that just because everybody was older, they weren't going to push me around. I'd feel like, 'Who are you to talk to me like that?'
"Then I'd go home and tell my mom, and she'd say, 'They're trying to teach you, just listen.' "
At 19, Vega had experienced two restaurants and worked his way up to lead line cook. An early mentor, chef Daniel Kennedy, at La Plage, encouraged him, gave him credit for his creative specials, taught him how to work with purveyors and answered all of his questions.
Kennedy urged Vega to follow his dream, which landed him in Philly at Alma de Cuba, working with a chef he idolized, Douglas Rodriguez, who is credited with powering the New Latin American Cuisine movement.
To celebrate his 20th birthday, Vega had taken the bus to Philly to dine at Alma. "I love South American and Latin cuisine, ceviches, any kind of Spanish food. The restaurant just blew me away."
The next day, back at La Plage, Kennedy told him to go for it. "He said, 'What do you have to lose?' "
Vega had help putting together a resumé, but the cover letter came straight from his heart. That letter, which was posted in the kitchen when he interviewed for the job, spoke about his passion for Latin cuisine, his love of Rodriguez's food and how much he wanted to be a part of Alma de Cuba's team. He got the job.
"I was so excited. I had to find an apartment and move in three days. My parents were like, 'How are you going to get there? Do you have enough money?' I didn't know you had to put first and last month's rent up - there was a lot of stuff I didn't think about. So they helped me out, but told me next time to give them more than three days' notice."
Vega credits Rodriguez with taking him under his wing. "He showed me so much," he said.
Vega started at the bottom at Alma as the salad guy, and worked his way up. After a year, he was the lead line chef specializing in seafood.
The job of sous chef at Gigi came up three months later, when chef Luis Melendez left to pursue other projects. Vega found himself in the hot seat, heading up the five-person kitchen at the tender age of 21.
"I was excited, but it's a lot of responsibility, too," he said. "I try to lead by example. If I get down on my hands and knees and scrub and cook on the line, I think the team respects that. I don't just give orders."
Vega quickly made Gigi's menu his own, creating seasonal dishes like pork belly paired with sweet-potato gnocchi and a spiced maple thyme jus, and tilapia ceviche accompanied by smoked tomato water, crispy basil leaves and toasted coriander oil.
He even riffed on the Philly cheesesteak, concocting a cheesesteak empanada with roasted mushrooms, peppers and onions, cheddar cheese and scallion aioli.
As he moves into his next executive chef position at Azul, Vega is excited to concentrate on Mexican and Latin American cuisine.
"I want my food to make sense," he said. "I try to think outside of the box but keep things simple, seasonal and fresh." *