Owner of Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern Talks All Things Cuisine
Written By: K.W. Richardson
Photographed By: Brenda Winburn
David Wilhelm’s name is legendary in the culinary world. His prodigious skill and trendsetting foresight has impacted the haute cuisine community for almost 40 years and put coastal towns like Laguna Beach on the map for his creative, yet exceedingly refined dining landmarks. Still, his adventurous spirit lives on, inspiring him to trade the white tablecloths and fresh white orchids for reclaimed wood, lively music and a purely American menu. His newest project, Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern, or JFAT, has yet again set the industry standard. Celebrating the recent opening of the fifth JFAT, Chef Wilhelm sat down with us to share the story of how our favorite tavern came to be.
Far from the sultry Chat Noir, venerable Savannah Chop House or inimitable force of French 75, Chef Wilhelm created JFAT, as a premium casual concept that welcomes board shorts as much as it does bespoke blazers and Louboutin’s. Speaking of his new and most casual concept yet, he said, “I love regional Americana. You know, I’m from the Midwest, so I wanted to have some fun with the recipes that I knew from my youth. I wanted to make comfort food for foodies.”
“Family experience,” he said, was the inspiration for JFAT’s menu. Being the eldest of six children raised in Flint, MI, Chef Wilhelm got an early start in the kitchen from helping his mother prepare family meals. Spending countless hours in the family’s garden and kitchen gave him a deep appreciation for the myriad of mouthwatering flavors that American cuisine had to offer. That appreciation, or perhaps more appropriately, that affection, for folk flavors are unmistakably present throughout JFAT’s sumptuous offerings.
But there’s more than just incredible flavor brought out by rich traditional ingredients. There is a palpable vibrancy to each dish that is very obviously distinguished from the familiar dishes that we grew up on. JFAT’s distinctive recipes were created because Wilhelm wanted people to “get a familiar fix in a creative way.” Of course, his Midwestern modesty notably omitted the fact that he is a fantastically accomplished French chef.
At the age of 18, Wilhelm moved to Manhattan. “I remember that first summer I was trying to find work at a bunch of restaurants, but I didn’t have any experience, so it was hard.“ I ended up bluffing my way into a job at Maxwell’s Plum as a captain where I made tableside Caesar salad and steak tartare,” he recalled with a bit of embarrassed laughter. It was there that his passion for cuisine was really ignited.
In January of 1976, tired of the frigid East Coast winter—and the semi-frequent muggings in NYC—Chef Wilhelm locked up his apartment, hopped on a plane for California and settled into Laguna Beach. It wouldn’t be long before he would open his own restaurant, Kachina, in Laguna Beach (now occupied by Brussel’s Bistro), and instantly put South Orange County dining on the map.
Gaining notoriety at light speed, Chef Wilhelm then bought and transformed Sorrento Grill and created the famous French 75 within just a few years. Opening as many as 15 successful high-end concepts throughout California has made him a restaurant superstar, but despite his winning formula with fine dining, he is also never one to rest on his laurels.
Wilhelm continued his penchant for trendsetting when he opened the first JFAT in Point Loma in 2010, and soon after opened one of the most popular restaurants in all of Dana Point. Dishing out creative interpretations of old-school family recipes and rocking hand-picked playlists, JFAT has become the standard for discriminating foodies that want to have a little fun. But it’s more than amazing food; indeed, great food is in ample supply since Wilhelm came to town. Creative, modern and impeccably designed, his tavern is the fun-filled culinary paradise that was missing from the local culinary scene. American cuisine is more than just reborn through Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern, it proves Wilhelm’s foresighted genius in giving us food and vibes that simply make us happy.
#TBT: Chef Wilhelm’s very first cookbook was a Vincent Price cookbook that his mother bought for him in high school. He still has it to this day.
Improvisation Realization: Upon learning that Wilhelm was not following the exact recipe for the steak tartare, the French General Manager called Wilhelm out in front of all of his co-workers and demanded that he submit his version of the dish to a taste test against the his version. Reluctantly, the General Manager conceded that Wilhelm’s was the superior dish. Wilhelm recalls thinking, “Okay, maybe I do have a good palate. I think I can do this.”
Credit Where Credit is Due: It was the owners of Le Mouton Noir that purchased Wilhelm his first Cuisinart. He credits much of the development of his early skills to his incessant experimentation with dishes in his home kitchen.
Native Knowledge: Look for off-menu specials every month that showcases Chef Wilhelm’s skill and passion for American food![column size=one_third position=first ]Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern
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