Food for Thought: Jackie’s Cafe

At the Corner of Buffalo and Chicago streets in New Buffalo sits Jackie’s Cafe. It’s a place where people go to experience a diverse menu prepared by a celebrity chef from Chicago.

Jackie Shen, the owner and chef at Jackie’s Cafe, didn’t even start cooking until she was 30. She has a degree in hotel restaurant management from the University of Houston and has worked in hotels such as the Ritz Carlton and the Hyatt.

“When I told my dad that I gave up the hotel job, I gave up the restaurant job, I wanted to be a cook, he almost flipped because he said I spent all of that money in college then now I am a cook making, at that time, $1.75 an hour, no overtime. I was working from 7 in the morning - 8 o clock in the morning then we would finish at midnight. But nobody was upset, because this is required of us, I would work for that chef for no pay at all because that’s how good he was,” Shen said.

She worked for esteemed chef Jean Banchet who owned a famous French restaurant in a suburb north of Chicago.

But Banchet didn’t put her on the map - Julia Child did.

“I was able to observe Julia Child doing something in her cooking demonstration and I was watching her but I was watching the prop in her table and it was overflooding with food from her bag. I thought it would be cool if I could come up with a bag that is made of chocolate. I went through a lot of wax paper bag and it never went through so six weeks trying to develop that idea. I went to Garrets, and as I was waiting in line I saw this bag and saw the person scooping up and it dawned on me I can try to use that Carmel bag to make my chocolate bag so I brought back 200 bags to make my chocolate bags,” Shen said.

200 bags quickly turned into over 250,000 while she was working at Red Light in Chicago.

The dessert was a delicious chocolate shell filled with Belgian white chocolate mousse, fresh berries and a house-made raspberry sauce.

Her creation quickly turned into a Chicago staple

The cherry on top was cooking for the president of China.

After 30 years as a highly acclaimed chef in Chicago, Shen got the call to work as the head chef for the reopened Stray Dog in New Buffalo. She never looked back.

“I did that and came into New Buffalo on a train, the Amtrak, got off the train and looked around and said, this is super nice New Buffalo after I took the job and I decided to move up here and stay in New Buffalo,” Shen said.

“I think that moving to New Buffalo is rounding a few of her edges. She is incredibly talented and very, very skilled in the kitchen and really knows how to manage team. She can be a bit fiery at times. She will always be Chef. I have had a lot of chefs but she was the first one I learned a lot from and kind of invested a lot back, so she will always be Chef Jackie,” said Thomas Mooneyham, a former employee of Shen’s.

Seven years ago, after reopening the Stray Dog, Shen opened Jackie’s Café just around the corner.

Now this small community and her small café mean more than any celebrity chef status

“It didn’t really mean anything if you do not support the community that puts you on the map, even though the community is smaller , being a chef being famous is nothing without that,” Shen said.

The COVID-19 crisis has been challenging for the cafe. Shen has been relying on catering and her pre-cooked meals for revenue

Despite the hard times, she still believes it is food that connects us most.

“I think we have lost that intimacy and ability connect with each other, to say, ‘I love you’ and enjoy our meal and enjoy our company with each other. I think this is what people miss the most,” Shen said. “I think that you have to look at is that food is what brings people together and food is what makes people happy and all we need to do is get over this year and everybody be healthy and that is all that matters, later on we can always connect we can always celebrate we can always eat”

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