Even before it became a popular, Chef Benoit St Jacques started cooking vegetarian.
Now, after more than three decades – including 27 years at Rosewood Market & Deli – he will step down Thursday.
St. Jacques, a Quebec native, moved to Columbia around 1979-80, after cooking in a bistro in his hometown called The Hobbit (“I guess [the name] was a sign of the times,” said St. Jacques, laughing). Once in Columbia, he worked in the kitchen at 221 Pickens St., a health food co-op that promoted local, seasonal foods and producers.
“I’ve always been involved in starting from scratch, dropping in and starting kitchens,” said St. Jacques.
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St. Jacques, who once said he’s “always been into vegetarian cooking,” later joined Basil Garza at the Basil Pot, one of Columbia’s first vegetarian restaurants, where he cooked for a time with chef Frank Lee (who later went to Charleston and recently retired as executive chef at Slightly North of Broad). St. Jacques worked at Basil Pot for six years before joining Rosewood Market in 1989.
We sat down with St. Jacques, along with Rosewood Market owner Bryan Tayara and chefs Katie McKinney and Jim McFadden, to talk about what’s next for St. Jacques and the popular Columbia health food store.
So do you think the Columbia healthy food scene is finally catching up to you?
St. Jacques: “Well, yeah. I was telling someone the other day we were vegan before vegan was cool. It was something we were doing all along ... using organic produce and grains when it wasn’t really a trend. We did follow trends over the years but always staying within the vision of what we wanted to do (at Rosewood). We always treated food not as entertainment, but to feed people good stuff to sustain life. We’re in the era of rock star chefs and everybody wants to be a chef and everybody’s watching TV and I’m not a fan of that.”
McFadden: “It glamorizes something that really isn’t that glamorous when you get down to the brass tacks of it.”
Do you have a favorite memory over the years?
St. Jacques: “To me, I look at ... for the last three weeks ... all of the faces that I’ve seen of the people that I’ve been feeding for 35 years, seriously, and they’re still here and coming in so I would say my favorite time is right now. Seeing them. I’m in a thankful time right now, thanking them. And these guys (Tayara, McKinney and McFadden) are my family, we’ve worked together for so long.”
No big sendoff planned for St. Jacques?
McFadden: “Of all the chefs I’ve worked for, I’d say that Benoit has got to be the most unassuming, most unpretentious – just normal, regular human being – that I’ve known. I don’t think we need to do anything serious; pomp and circumstance doesn’t seem to befit his departure.”
McKinney: “I’m sure there will be tears on Thursday (St. Jacques’ last day).”
So, what are you plans after Thursday?
St. Jacques: “Short term, my wife and I have a line of hot sauces – Meet Your Cremator – that we’ve been doing at Saturday’s market for the last two years ... doing that, pushing that more. Everything we make we sell and I haven’t had a chance to go try to sell to more places. Now I’ll have more time to do that, promote it a bit more and set up an online store. (St. Jacques and his wife grow their own peppers for the sauces on a 9-acre farm in the Cedar Creek area.)
“Another thing I want to do is, my wife Diane Gilbert is a scupltor and teaches pottery at Southern Pottery and I think I’ll have more time to help promote her career. And I will still be cooking here and there ... I will help out Vino Garage with their twice monthly tastings ... and some freelance catering. I want to keep it small so I can do it all by myself.”
McKinney: “He’s been a good mentor.”
St. Jacques: “These guys know what they’re doing.”
You guys have built up an extensive deli menu over the years with a lot of daily specials over the course of a month. What are some of the more popular menu items?
McFadden: “More popular dishes, spinach lasagne, shrimp burgers, eggplant parmesan ...”
McKinney: “African peanut soup ...”
Tayara: “... and the grain bowls and jerk chicken. It’s a large menu compared to most restaurants ... 64 entrees. We rotate entrees through the month and we have customers come in on specific days (salmon Mondays, lasagne Fridays, etc).”
McFadden: “Variety is not the issue.”
Are you two (McFadden and McKinney) excited about this new venture?
McKinney: “Very excited!”
Tayara: “Katie has a lot of ideas. We’re going to experiment with some new dishes, maybe offer some things more often that people have come to like over the years that we now only offer once a week.”
McFadden: “Benoit laid an outstanding foundation for us move into the future.”
McKinney: “We’re just going to focus on favorites and hopefully that will make room for some new dishes.”
Brian, you have a culinary background. Will you be getting into the kitchen?
Tayara: “I am planning on getting in the kitchen, but not too deep because I have the entire store to watch over. But I do plan on participating in menu development and I do want to get back there and get my hands dirty... get a feel for what we can add. I want to expand breakfast in the morning ... maybe hot breakfast sandwiches.”
Brian, it’s been a little over 18 months since you took over Rosewood Market. How’s that experience been?
Tayara: “It’s been a fun ride these past 18 months. We’ve just expanded the produce section and it’s a big learning experience. I still work with Basil (Garza). He’s is like my dad, and I’m learning a lot from him. Everytime I make a decision, I talk to Basil about it first.”
Do you have any future plans?
Tayara: “I’ve always had my eye on expansion but it probably wouldn’t happen for the next couple of years. I want to tighten up here first. North Main is asking about grocery stores and Bull Street ... so maybe a smaller store, more of a deli.”
McFadden: “You’ve gotta be excited. A new generaton of people are seeking healthy dining and grocery shopping options and no one is more equipped to address their needs than Rosewood. As far as the tradition and the institution of healthy eating, that’s Rosewood Market as far as Columbia goes.”
Tayara: “When you come here, the people who work here, we live the lifestyle, we eat the food when we go home we use these products we can tell you how to cook it and how to use it.”
McFadden: “I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t worked at Rosewood and worked for Benoit.”
St. Jacques: (laughing) “I’m going to come and bug him every Friday ... selling hot sauce in the parking lot.”
Rosewood Market & Deli
WHERE: 2803 Rosewood Drive
WHEN: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
INFO: (803) 765-1083; deli (803) 256-6410; www.rosewoodmarket.com