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Pressure Cooker

Lynell George is a senior writer for West.

In the winter months, long before the first hint of daylight, Russell Jackson sets out on his not-quite-three-mile run up 3rd Street, along the city’s edge. Once he closes in on the ballpark, he takes a deep breath, clambers over a short fence and jumps into the cold, black expanse of San Francisco Bay. He swims a few yards out, and back. He pulls himself out of the shock of the water, to his feet. Then, with his cold, heavy clothes clinging to him, he jogs the concrete stretch back to the Third Street Gym in Potrero Hill. There he changes into dry duds and begins a circuit of calisthenics and strength training, with two trainers, and maybe some quality time with the heavy bag.

“These dudes are brutal!” he says, joy barely contained in a voice that often--no matter what time of day--seems amped up, caffeinated. “I overslept one morning, and you know, you only get three times late, then you’re out. So I told the guy, ‘Look, dude, here’s my home phone number'--and I don’t give my home number to anybody--'if I don’t show up, you call me. If I don’t answer, you come over to my house and pull me outta bed.’ I live just up the street. I have no excuses, unless I’m sick. Otherwise, no excuses.” Now comes the giggle, a sonic eruption, really. That’s because he knows he can conjure excuses. He knows he can spin nothing into something. Which is why there’s boot camp. And a diet. And boxing. And a not-quite-six-mile run that he hates.

Jackson is not training for a fight or a race. His early-morning ritual is in preparation for his return not to the ring or the track, but to an arena that he knows can be just as brutal: the alternately three-alarm chaos and synchronized beauty of running his own restaurant kitchen.

He’s trying to get his weight down, his endurance up. He’s trying to build his stamina for the long, unpredictable days that await him--heading up not just his own kitchen but his own business; being on his feet for 12, 15, 18 hours a day; meeting with purveyors, his moneymen; suffering over the books, sweating over AWOL expediters; negotiating front- and back-of-house issues; standing over extreme heat, presiding over extreme human capriciousness. In other words, tending catastrophe. He knows all this because he’s done it all before--and walked away precisely because he could no longer stomach it. At 30, it was one thing, but at 42 and out of the game for five years and counting, it is something else entirely.

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I see it in all of the chefs of a certain level who are driven--I’ve seen it in Emeril and in Wolfgang and in Mario Batali. In Nancy Silverton. I see it everywhere. There’s this huge hole that can only be filled by this. The kind of pace, this work, the craziness. In a certain way we need it.

--Chef-owner Mary Sue Milliken, who was Jackson’s boss at the original Border Grill

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At 14, Jackson was preparing weekend dinners out of “The Joy of Cooking” for his Palisades High School clique. “A formal friggin’ sit-down dinner. With courses.” By 30, he had logged 15 years of restaurant experience--mercurial executive chefs, upside-down hours, nonstop partying and the best training he could get for his sweat, persistence and thick skin.

“People would look at my resume and say, ‘Man, you’ve worked at a lot of restaurants!’ Well, you want to learn, and they don’t stay open very long.” He’s the first to say he was a terror too. “I loved being in the kitchen. I could always drink there. I could always party there. In those years that was my motivation--girls, booze, making money.”

He worked in a string of high-profile West Coast restaurants and nightspots in the ‘80s and ‘90s: Citrus, Rebecca’s, Border Grill and Trinity in Los Angeles; Black Cat in San Francisco. Shortly after he opened his own restaurant, Russell’s, in 1993, his hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, dubbed him “a young rising star . . . who may become a major chef in this town.”

By 2002 he’d chucked it all--the stress, the ego slams, the minute-to-minute money woes--to work privately as a highly paid major-domo, running mansions across the country, designing state-of-the-art kitchens and shaving $3,000 worth of truffles on top of scrambled eggs for the children of the house “because they liked them.”

In what was left of his spare time he began skydiving as fervently as if he’d just found religion. It gave him balance and clarity for the first time in a very long time. He opened up a little cafe at a drop zone in Davis and named it, with an affectionate wink, the Dive Bar.

And everything was fine, until it wasn’t.

Something inside of him had quietly shifted. “I’m sitting in my own two-story, three-bedroom house, in Nantucket, with my feet up, watching the ocean, smoking a Cuban cigar, with more money in my bank account than I’ve ever had in my whole life, and I’m thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have any concerns or any unhappiness in my life at this moment, but I’m the most unhappy that I’ve ever been in my life. I mean, literally, I need medication.’ ”

It was simpler than that, though that’s not to say it made for an easy solution. “The job had become about making money and not about what I was doing. It was soulless,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘What the hell do I want to do?’ I can’t see myself cooking anyone else’s widgets. I need to do what I do, and what I do is run restaurants. I run and I cook in restaurants.”

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To anyone within earshot, Jackson had sworn up and down that he would never do it again. Never. His nail-in-the-coffin experience was as chef de cuisine at Black Cat, Reed Hearon’s homage to classic North Beach cuisine--Italian, Chinese, surf-and-turf chophouse.

“Little did I know,” he says, “that I was stepping into the seventh layer of hell.” He averaged 18 hours a day for 60-, 70-, 80-day stretches. Often he was too tired to make the less-than-five-minute walk up the hill home; it was easier to crash in a booth upstairs. “You could see my house from the front of the restaurant. It was that crazy.” A year later, it was time to go. “I was a walking zombie for months.”

Jackson had only recently begun to achieve some semblance of normalcy: relatively standard hours and a new relationship, both of which, he’s well aware, will be upended when his dream project--NoCa--finally gets going. But circling back hasn’t felt like defeat or a heroic return. It’s more like finishing an incomplete thought.

“I can’t be unrealistic. I’m fortysomething years old now. I can’t think about a different career,” Jackson says. “This is who I am.”

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A number of factors keep chefs going despite the odds against success: desire for perfection, coupled with fear of failure, plus the ability to move on to another project if one restaurant fails (but the chef keeps his or her reputation).

Juliette Rossant, author of “Super Chef: the Making of the Great Modern Restaurant Empires”

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It’s springtime--March--and Jackson’s fancy has turned to real estate. He’s gripping the wheel of his midnight-blue Toyota RAV4, peering over his tinted rectangle frames as he inches through midday Financial District traffic. He’s talking, talking. His cellphones ring alternately, at once. More talk. He speaks in dense, embroidered paragraphs, a mix of hubris, hope, expansive ideas, fear, cynicism and a mordant humor. You get the sense that it’s as much for him as for whoever is listening--a pep talk, a mantra, a recommitment.

Tomorrow night he’s cooking for a potential investor, a friend of one of his cousins, a neurosurgeon--Dr. Bates. “My cousin says, if you feed him, he will get it.”

Since Jackson has recommitted to “the life,” he’s lost count of how many of these investor dinners he’s whipped up. “People say, ‘This was great! Let me know when you’re ready to rock ‘n’ roll.’ But when the time comes, often it was one of those ‘in the heat of the moment’ things. ‘Oh, yeah, you know, things are a little tight right now,’ or ‘My money is tied up elsewhere.’ ” One thing he hasn’t lost count of is how much these intimate soirees set him back. “Each one of them, I’d say, can cost me anywhere between $300 to $500 . . . depending on what I’m thinking about or what I see at the market.”

He’s on his way there, to the Ferry Building. Eventually. First, though, he has to watch the pot--check in on several spaces he’s been coveting. He rolls by a corner restaurant enclosed by floor-to-ceiling windows, but that’s not quite longing in his eyes. Instead of seeing men in $900 suits sealing deals or society ladies in hats and gloves conversing, Jackson sees only the recent history of these properties, as laid out by his broker. “This one,” he says of a busy bistro sunk into the ground floor of an office high-rise, “would need a build-out on the kitchen, and they want too much. They want to throw in their inventory. I don’t want their inventory. It’s lowbrow quality. We’d have to do a lot--a lot--to brighten the place up.” Another is hidden in one corner of the Transamerica building. “This space--well, everybody says this place is cursed, like that restaurant that used to be at the corner of Melrose and La Cienega. Nothing would ever last.”

Jackson stops at his P.O. box to pick up some wines he’s ordered. “Black Coyote,” he says, pulling a bottle of Chardonnay out of the crate. “This is Dr. Bates’ winery. Little does he know. . . .” He checks his watch and then jogs across the street to the cleaners, returning with his chef coats. “This,” he says, carefully laying the plastic bag in back, “I will need.”

In a blink he’s valet parking at the Ferry Building. Pen in hand, he peers at his list. He’s still talking. Excited. Turned up to 10. The Ferry Building is more than just a seven-days-a-week regional farmer’s market; it is a shrine to all that’s wondrous in food.

Jackson’s first stop is Far West Fungi, to visit with Ian, his “mushroom guy.” He recites: “fiddlehead ferns, hedgehogs and yellow-foots, and stinging nettles for starters.” After rooting through a pile of hedgehogs for 10 minutes, he’s on to the fiddleheads, vivid green discs as tightly wound as an @ sign, then on to white truffles. When he finds just the right density, he knows. “I got the rock I want.” Ian does the math: $300 on fungi alone. Jackson settles up some on his house account, and pays for the rest with plastic.

He strolls by Prather Ranch Meat Co. (“skydiving buddies”) just to browse, then peeks into the Imperial Tea Court. “When I open, I’m going to have teas designed by them.” He stops for coffee, a medium drip, black. “I had to sell my stock in Peet’s!” he says. “It was the first of many things to go to help fund all of this.”

He goes over his list again, and the menu, making adjustments. “There are just things I like to eat this time of year. I came last week just to look at the market produce and protein to get some ideas.” He dips into Cowgirl Creamery, where it’s three deep at a counter full of browsers, grazers, working chefs and nervous hosts. Jackson bellies up, asks for a taste of the Abbaye de Belloc, a raw sheep’s milk cheese at $18.70 a pound. “Huh,” is his assessment. “I need something a little nuttier.” The Berkswell, at $36.25 a pound, fits the bill. He jets into Acme for bread, Golden Gate Meat Co. for duck fat and Ciao Bella for fromage blanc gelato.

Behind the wheel, his cargo hold full and fragrant, Jackson toggles back to an earlier conversation. Not only has he blown through his savings to fund these dinners, but he’s refinanced his house. Twice. “I mean, I’m on my final threads here.” He’s swinging through SoMa, South of Market, “perfect for a late-night neighborhood bistro,” but he’s still somewhere far away. “I was talking to my friend Joseph Manzare, who owns Globe. He said, ‘You’re exactly where I was. I remember those days, and they just sucked! I just want to cook. I don’t care where the restaurant is.’ That’s how I feel. I don’t care where it is. I just want to cook.”

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I spent every single penny I had, maxed out my credit card. I sold my car. . . . I rode my bicycle to investor meetings. . . . I feel lucky. With three restaurants, two more I’m building, I was always going in the right direction. But it took me five years to feel like it was a success. ‘This can’t possibly go on!’ Year after year, ‘When is this going to end?! It’s too good to be true.’ I kept saying, ‘Let’s see what happens after a year.’ Then I’d say that next year too.

--Joseph Manzare, chef-owner of Globe and other Bay Area restaurants

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Russell’s was small and sleek, its menu vivid against the minimalist grey-white-black decor: baby back ribs on a bed of lentils and peppers; lamb chops marinated for seven days in annatto seed, roasted garlic, tequila and lime, served on a masa-dough biscuit. Not only did the restaurant offer a beer and wine list, but also a carte du soda pop.

It stood out in a sea of seared ahi tuna, angel hair pasta, Caesar salad and grilled chicken breasts. “Jackson is attempting a high-wire act seven days a week,” wrote Times critic S. Irene Virbila. “Not everything works all the time, but I’d much rather eat at a restaurant where the chef has lots of ideas and a real love of cooking than at a place where the kitchen sleepwalks.”

It was his dream: the perfect late-night bistro. And it was all over in 18 months.

Looking back, Jackson vows not to do it alone this time, but with a partner “who has as much to lose as I do.” He vows to not make the same mistakes: using his father’s capital to fund the place; paying too little attention to the books to detect that several employees were stealing. “Their paychecks were late, so they took it out with booze.” Cases and cases of it. Truth told, he says, “I was disorganized, undercapitalized and unstructured.”

Oh, then there was the 1994 earthquake and the FEMA money that never arrived. And the loan that was to hold him over that never materialized. If a hemorrhaging bottom line wasn’t enough, his marriage to singer Meredith Brooks began to fracture. He filed for bankruptcy protection. “There was no way that I could survive after all of that calamity,” he says. “The last couple of months, I was waiting on the tables and cooking.”

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I couldn’t even utter the words ‘I’m a cook’ for the first four years. I didn’t feel I had the right to. But I would go home and my hands would just be battered, cuts and burns, and I would look down on them and say, ‘This is brilliant. This is great. I feel like I’ve done something today.’

--Octavio Becerra, former vice president, chef and cofounder of Patina Group, who worked with Jackson at the Cadillac Cafe

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It’s just after 1 in the afternoon and Jackson’s small but efficient apartment kitchen, on the edge of Dogpatch in Lower Potrero, is clicking with activity. The Bateses--father Ernest and son Ernest Jr., an institutional bond salesman, are due at 6. Jackson is focused, his energy drawn inward. The only time he feels centered, “that everything is OK,” he says, is “in the plane on the way to altitude and . . . when I’m standing in the kitchen.”

He’s been at it since 9 a.m. But that doesn’t factor in what he started yesterday or hit upon in his sleep last night. “All my proteins are either marinating, cooking or basting.” The dessert, a bread pudding, was finished this morning. (He’s set aside two ramekins to share later with his girlfriend.)

His cutting board looks like a Dutch still life: violet-tinged torpedo onions, new-grass green leeks and green garlic. The pork sous-vide (“an old French vacuum-cooking technique that’s been the trendy, in thing lately”) has been simmering at a low, low heat for about 18, 20 hours. A television set atop his refrigerator streams CNN on low volume. “That’s so I find out what’s going on in the world beyond this room.” In a T-shirt and faded cargo shorts, he scuffs around in black Merrell clogs and white socks. “These aren’t my usual clogs. I get those designed for me in L.A.”

That would be about the only thing.

L.A. left a bad taste in Jackson’s mouth. San Francisco, where he had attended the California Culinary Academy in 1990, would give him a fresher start. “Part of the reason I came back to San Francisco is that I have a client base that supports the kind of cooking I want to do. . . . The idea is to show Dr. Bates what I do and what the philosophy of the restaurant is: the best fresh local ingredients, prepared simply.”

He fries the fiddleheads, to test them. Then he starts cleaning the trotters to make the torchon. Jackson’s movements are deft and precise. He pivots about the kitchen, most everything within arm’s reach or a quick knee-bend away. Is he nervous? “I keep telling myself that it’s just another dinner. I remind myself that it means something, but it doesn’t mean anything.” He turns his attention to his notes. “Gotta prep the duck fat.”

By 3:30 he begins to pick up around the apartment, clearing away some of his skydiving gear, magazines and a big blue fitness ball. He checks e-mail on his desktop computer, then turns on the big-screen television to show off his last jump. “Thirteen thousand feet. . . . Eight-way jump. . . . Ah, I almost ate it there.” There’s a rough jiggling of the camera, which is attached to Jackson’s helmet, then everything is righted again as they make their slow-float descent. “See that little white container down there?” It’s a speck in the lower left corner of the screen. “That’s the Dive Bar.” He giggles. “I half hope to be too busy with the new restaurant to have time to be seeing that anytime soon.”

By 4 he’s picking the wines, a Riesling and Dr. Bates’ Chardonnay for the first courses, his Cab and maybe a Cotes du Rhone for the later courses. He places black leather mats on the table, plates and stemware and flatware--dinner forks prong down--then keeps tweaking. At 4:15, “that rabbit’s got to come out.” Table’s ready. Lights? Music.

At quarter to 6 he checks e-mail for any movement on any of the properties, checks the tasting notes on the Black Coyote website. He turns on the A/C. His skydiving buddy Evan Matteo, a real estate broker, arrives. Jackson, still cool, takes a last tour of the room. “Fine, fine, ready.” Lights the candles. Then gets another saute pan going. “Oh, what do I need? A jacket.” He pulls it over his T-shirt.

The Bateses arrive, first the son, then the father. Soon after, dinner floats out smoothly, course by course: the trotter crepenette with mustard sauce and fennel salad; the porcini and Parmesan oil soup; a salmon served on chicories with oro blanco and salmon roe; rabbit with crispy hedgehogs, yellow-foots two ways; duck breast confit and the pork sous-vide; the bread pudding. Between small talk--the season’s rain, skydiving, Napa Valley--Jackson drifts in, giving notes: where raised, where grown, how prepared. He doesn’t sit to eat. Rather, he lights for a moment, then dashes back to the kitchen.

The doctor and his son are full of questions.

“Where have you been looking?”

“What kind of mood?”

There is talk about the waterfront, the parking issues. The good thing about the Financial District is that there’s parking in the office buildings at night. “And Union Street,” says Ernest, “is where people want to go and lounge.”

Dr. Bates is smiling, but his eyes are telegraphing something else too. “Look, I would have given you $25,000 without dinner! Just wanted you to stop bugging me.” He laughs, then hits Jackson with a question. “So do your other investors know about the skydiving? I imagine they’d want to protect their investment. You’d probably have to stop.”

Jackson pivots, nimble on his feet. “Well, I’ll probably be so busy running the restaurant, you know, I’d have to scale back, no doubt.” But, he adds, “what’s riskier? Something more likely could happen on the I-80 than falling out of the sky.”

No one says it, but surely they’re thinking: That could be true, but this risk assessment is coming from a guy ‘round-the-bend enough to be opening yet another restaurant in a city with hundreds.

*

That dot.com period was a really exciting time for us--every creative chef who wanted to could have set up shop and made a lot of money. Now rents are going down and the city is filling in again. I’d say the resurgence has happened within the last 10 months.

--Ryan Eidson, partner in Tartaglia, a restaurant development company

*

It’s April, and Jackson is calling to check in. He’s on his way across the Bay Bridge, coming back from one meeting and heading to another. Later he’ll shop for another dinner.

His voice seems leaden today. Things aren’t going as swiftly as he’d like. He’s got more balls in the air, though: He’s been running an underground restaurant--literally a movable feast--as a way to raise funds and attention for the brick-and-mortar project. “It’s taken some of the pressure off,” he says, “because now at least I’m cooking on a regular basis.” Physically it’s getting to him, between Thursday and Friday nights underground and weekends at the Dive Bar. “My feet hurt an awful lot on Monday, but I get to skydive for free.” His girlfriend, Cheryl Carnevale, has been offering bouquets of support, helping to line up dinners and guests, casting about for financial leads. Does she know what’s going to happen once everything hits fast-forward, when he’s back up to double shifts? Not yet. “But I think we have a good base. And she really wants to be involved. It’s different from the last time.”

If Jackson has found love, there’s still the matter of money."I basically spent the last year and a half not making a dime, pouring every ounce of my life into this project, with, realistically, nothing tangible to show. I got a pretty marketing book and a $30,000 private placement memorandum drawn up that I still haven’t paid for.” He stops himself, then starts again. “The reality is that I know it will happen. And it is doing what is necessary between now and then to survive to get to that point.”

*

To be a chef is to want to be the best chef, to keep growing. That starts with the craft itself, developing a signature, a unique stamp in cooking that is your own. To choose ingredients, to combine--or not to combine--them, to cook or not cook them is a universe so vast that it is more akin to cracking a security code for an ATM machine: How many combinations does it take to get to the treasure inside? With such a goal, success can no longer be measured in terms of hours or “giving 100%.” You work until you reach your goal.

--Juliette Rossant

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By late April there’s been a couple of promising shifts: Not only have there been some big financial leads, but Jackson and Carnevale have moved in together. “I realized if I stayed in the East Bay I’d never ever see him,” she says.

Tonight they’re checking out Joseph Manzare’s restaurant Zuppa. With its low lighting, crisp white linens and unfinished walls, it is elegantly casual in that way that only San Francisco restaurants seem to be. It’s abuzz not with a scene, but with murmured conversation, people from the neighborhood, just off work, just out of a movie--exactly the mood Jackson wants to set at NoCa. The host, Gregg Washington, scoops Jackson into a bear hug: “Hey, Big Daddy!” When he glides off with a wink to tend to other tables, Jackson says, “Love that! Big personality. I think I’ll steal him.”

Even in the dim glow of the restaurant, Jackson looks transformed. His hair is shaved into a fade. He’s dropped, he’d say, 20 pounds in the last month, and the new muscle makes him look quick, not bulky. He shows off his new tattoo: a dinner fork on the back of his right arm. The matching knife will soon follow.

He looks around the room and describes the former floor plan, with the banquette on the other side and the Stammtisch--the family table--where the banquette used to be. He’s loving the play of color and light and shadow, “and I love it that they’re playing Peter Frampton!” he says.

“That kitchen is built for a restaurant three times this size. And there’s a whole other kitchen that you don’t even see at the front of the restaurant. It’s a chef’s dream back there.” Is this kitchen envy? “Nah, not at all.” He stops, very serious now. “I could have done some nice work here, but no. The right place to be will be there for me, and I’ll make it my own.”

It wasn’t just the food or the camaraderie of the kitchen that he missed over time. It was the pace, the nightly freefall.

“It’s one of the most amazing things when things are clicking and the crew is firing and the runners are running,” he says. “It’s like making music. There is energy flowing and the dining room is humming and people are smiling and it’s this huge communal experience. It’s noisy. Wild but not out of control. It’s this song and dance that occurs, and not every restaurant accomplishes that. Some do it in different ways. Some are consistent, like a drumbeat. And it’s ding, ding, ding, ding, day in, day out, 25 years. That’s what I want to be. That’s what I want to do.”


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