Happy hour recipe
Jessica James fell in love with this tart martini at Perbacco, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. “It’s so refreshing, so easy,” James says of her homemade version, “and even my husband likes it.”
2 ounces Ketel One Citroen vodka
1 ounce amaretto liqueur
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice (use Meyer lemons when they’re in season, December to April)
Combine ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake to combine, and pour into a rocks glass, or strain and serve in a chilled martini glass.
Applebee’s takes its research pretty seriously: The company flew James and her team of executive chefs to Chicago for a day to taste every Italian beef sandwich they could find. “Mr. Beef was the best,” she says, “Al’s is good, too.” Not that James has to book a flight to find inspiration. In KC, she goes to The Farmhouse (300 Delaware St. in the River Market) and Genessee Royale Bistro (1531 Genessee St. in the stockyards district) when she needs a creativity boost. She loves the farm-fresh salads at Farmhouse and the Bichelmeyer’s Butcher’s Grind burger at Genessee Royale Bistro, served between buttered slices of English muffin.
How I got the job
“My mom was a single mom, so I cooked at home a lot,” says James, who grew up in Augusta, Kan. In high school she scored a job at Angelo’s, a beloved (but now closed) Italian restaurant in Wichita, and decided she wanted to purse cooking as a career. After graduating from Johnson County Community College with a degree in culinary arts, she worked in fine dining for a year, then got a job at Applebee’s.
From idea to menu item
A few years ago, James was playing around with two recipes for Applebee’s: Crispy beef tacos and banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches made with pork pate, pickled vegetables and cilantro. The tacos weren’t coming together, and James didn’t think Applebee’s customers would go for pork pate. So she married the fresh flavor of the banh mi with the crispiness (and familiarity) of the tacos by stuffing spicy pulled pork in fried wonton wrappers and topping it off with Asian slaw and fresh cilantro. Wonton Tacos are still on the appetizers menu at Applebee’s.
Sampling 30 Italian beef sandwiches or warm chocolate brownies in one day isn’t conducive to preserving anyone’s waistline. James balances the indulgences by drinking lots of water, taking the stairs whenever possible, and working out with a personal trainer three times a week when she’s not traveling for work. And on those days when overeating is inevitable, “I just eat cereal for dinner,” James says.
James loves gathering honest feedback (good and bad) from her fellow chefs and from Applebee’s customers on Twitter and Facebook. “You get some thick skin,” she says, but it’s the best way to grow and improve at whatever you do.”