By Lauren Walz
Photography by Kate LeSueur
Jen and Alex Jackson are remarkably laid-back for a hardworking power-chef couple. As they prep dinner in their apartment building’s breezy rooftop space, they cook together effortlessly—Jen preparing the dough while Alex chops vegetables. And they communicate about the process wordlessly—chatting, instead, about their favorite farmers, the local restaurant scene and how they came to be in Austin. With a relationship born in culinary school and seasoned over years in top restaurants, they move in tune.
Even though both work long hours at up-and-coming restaurants—Jen is the executive chef at Josephine House and Alex is the chef at Salt & Time Butcher Shop & Salumeria—they still enjoy cooking together on their days off. The flatbread they’re making today is one of their staples. “We make a lot of pizza, because almost everything from the farmers market, you can make a pizza out of,” says Jen. “We keep it pretty easy,” adds Alex. “But every once in a while we’ll really throw down.”
The couple met in Portland, while in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute. They moved to San Francisco together to work at a pair of Michelin-starred restaurants, and then made their way to Austin. They like it here, even though “Portland is weirder,” Alex playfully ribs. “I feel like it’s a really powerful time for the food scene here,” Jen says. “Farmers are starting to be really integral. People are so proud of local, and are trying to turn the tide.”
Since the rooftop grill, which Alex describes as unreliable, won’t light, the Jacksons abandon the sun and expansive views of downtown across the river and trek back down to their ground-level apartment. It’s a tiny-but-cozy studio and, most importantly, it has reliable cooking equipment.
Alex begins to sauté a mixture of sweet peppers, onions, eggplants and cherry tomatoes—tossing in some vinegar for good measure, and talks about the Austin restaurant scene, which he likens to an 18-year-old. “It’s very confident…very excited,” he says. “It’s crazy, the caliber of talent in this town.” “There’s so much energy,” Jen adds. “There’s a lot of passion. It really is kind of like an 18-year-old trying to decide where it’s going to go.”
The Jacksons are part of that energy, and they’re both passionate about vegetables, and their local sources. Jen crafts her menu at Josephine House around Phoenix Farms’s weekly offerings—supplementing with market finds from Boggy Creek Farm and Johnson’s Backyard Garden, among others. “I just like vegetables,” says Alex, who then acknowledges that’s an odd statement for someone who works at a butcher shop. But vegetables figure prominently in Salt & Time’s menu—Alex’s market salads, for example, made of enticing combinations like cherry tomatoes and watermelon marinated in soy sauce and red wine vinegar, are generally vegan. “That’s where I really get to bring it,” he says with a smile.
“Alex and I have to battle over purveyors,” Jen laughs, and recalls one time when she was on the hunt for early-season melons. A contact at Johnson’s Backyard Garden called her to let her know they had 12, but Alex, overhearing the conversation, got there first. “I didn’t take all of them!” he says. “I only took four!”
Jen likes to collect her produce in more unconventional ways, too. She and Alex share stories of getting attacked by grackles while foraging for figs or loquats and of Jen’s tragic, unrequited love affair with wild mustang grapes (she’s allergic to the raw grapes). “I’ll eat them and my lips get numb and my fingers start itching,” she says. “But I keep eating them because they’re really good!” She solves the dilemma by cooking down the juice to use in sauces. Alex likes to experiment with foraged finds, too, and is currently curing some green mustang grapes like olives. “They’re almost done,” he says, “and they are awesome.”
A few minutes later, the flatbread emerges, puffed and smelling delicious. Alex finishes it off with a few handfuls of peppery arugula. The bread is light and fluffy and provides the perfect complement to the toppings. It’s a casual meal, but Jen and Alex pull it off with such perfect panache and grace that it feels elegantly indulgent.