'Corktown Jesse' proves a chef can be a name without his own kitchen

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He's known as "Corktown Jesse" from his various pop-ups, but he's really Jesse Knott, 36, a guy who grew up in Livonia but has lived in Detroit since 2003. He says, "I've been here a minute, seen a lot of crazy stuff change here." His pop-ups have taken place at POP above Checker Bar downtown, and at Motor City Wine and St. Cece's in Corktown. He does a regular brunch at Detroit City Distillery on Saturdays, and has even lent a hand at Revolver in Hamtramck. And people have been raving about his internationally accented fare, with such testimonials as, "You gotta check out Corktown Jesse. He's been killing it." We found him and asked Knott what's behind his apparent success.

Metro Times: What's your culinary background?

Jesse Knott: I went to Schoolcraft's culinary school. I don't necessarily have an extensive work background. I just went to school mostly just 'cause I wanted to. I was interested it in it not really with the idea of making it a profession or anything, but kind of ended up being good at it and really liking it. I've worked at restaurants on and off while growing up. I worked at Mudgie's for a really long time. That's probably like the nicest food I've made honestly. They're like a deli, but the food they make is awesome. It's all from scratch, using top-notch ingredients, so I consider it some of the best food in the city really. Now with this pop-up thing, it has kind of taken on a life of its own. It's not really quite an industry job, really, but it's something to do.

MT: In Detroit, it never hurts you to have a gimmick, like a nickname, and that "Corktown Jesse" moniker took off like wildfire.

Knott: Yeah, I guess so, man. It's funny to me. I didn't really mean it to be a thing. It's just stupid. They make you have a name online, you know, like you have to have some kind of handle, so, you know, think of something.

MT: Seems I've heard it a lot, in connection with mostly good things.

Knott: That's great, man. I mean, I do try. I really ... I just care. I care about food; I care about doing the right thing, and I care about, you know, if people are going to take the time to come out and, like, take their time and pay money to support me, I'm gonna do the best I can or die trying, you know. And it's important to me for everything to be amazing. I want people to say, "Wow!" I want people to get their return on their hard-earned money, so to speak, you know, for coming out.

MT: I saw the stuff you were doing, and it had all these Indian influences. Did you ever study the cuisine of the Subcontinent?

Knott: Yeah, I haven't been formally trained in any of it, but you can find out anything you need to if you look hard enough. I've just been looking online, exhaustively cooking it and practicing it and poking around in different weird grocery stores that had different things and asking a lot of questions, you know? And eating a lot of it. [laughs] That's my favorite part.

MT: So you're the kind of chef who maybe the pop-up scene is especially well-suited for since you're busy stealing ideas from here and there to make different things that no one else is doing.

Knott: Right, well that's why I like doing it so much, because it's easily every bit as much work as grinding in a restaurant every day, but you can do it in a different place, in a different setting, and a different kind of food on your own terms, you know? I try to use it as a learning tool as well: I get to learn how to make things that I wouldn't necessarily know how to make. Like, I wouldn't learn how to make Indian food working in some restaurant somewhere in the city here, I would just be doing the same thing every day. But after doing a couple of them now, I feel like I can knock out some butter chicken with some of the best of them, you know? I joke all the time about earning my junior firefighter badge, my junior electrician badge, my junior EMT badge, like every time there's always something. We just have to be able to go with the flow and figure things out on the fly. Doing pop-ups keeps you on your toes, that's for sure.

MT: When I think of your traditional kitchen, normally I think there's a lot of ego and conflict. With the pop-up thing, it sounds like you're really just down to enjoy the fun of cooking with anyone.

Knott: Yeah, man. I mean, that's how you build community, you know? Just vibing with other people. I don't understand the whole chef ego thing personally. I've worked in restaurants under chefs where they're just absolutely insane and impossible to deal with on a human level, and I don't understand why people put up with that behavior from other people. It's like, you realize you're in a room full of people with knives right now, right? Why don't you calm down? I don't get it. I don't play that. And that's a lot of the reason why I ended up doing the pop-up thing, 'cause I don't want to deal with anybody else's ego or self-importance. I love being able to work with people who are on my level, which there are a lot of them in Detroit. Detroit is full of a lot of really talented, really chill people who are doing cool stuff, and it's fun to work with them, and it's fun to have the opportunity to do so. So that's why I like doing what I do, 'cause I get the time and the chance to meet people I would never have met if I was just stuck in some restaurant kitchen every day doing that.

Jesse Knott serves a regular pop-up brunch starting at 10 a.m. Saturdays at Detroit City Distillery, 2462 Riopelle St., Detroit; 313-338-3760; detroitcitydistillery.com.

Michael Jackman is managing editor of the Detroit Metro Times.

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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