Talking about J. William Culinary with Chef Jay Phelan
1. Tell us about J. William Culinary.
We do gourmet fitness meals, which is fitness food from a fine dining approach as far as technique and quality of ingredients. We try to do it in a way that allows you to eat that way several times a day or at least once a day. I had been seeing a lot of people in the gym who were cheating on their diets or they were eating in a very, very restricted way and I thought I could apply my culinary skills to help them eat better. I wanted to give people the best of both worlds - eating great food, but also eating healthy. I don't think those two things are exclusive. I think there's plenty of healthy food on this planet.
2. What exactly is a fitness meal?
Fitness food, for me, has to have a certain amount of protein to allow recovery after a workout. Our meals are what most people would consider high protein. They have about 40g of protein in them, which is about the amount that a body can absorb. The carbs need to be from a good source, so we use a lot of rice - brown rice, jasmine rice, and sweet potatoes, which are a good, low glycemic source of carbohydrates. We then finish off with a lot of vegetables. We don't add any refined sugars or sodium. We also tend to avoid dairy, which is very high in calories and lactose, which isn't good for you. We elicit flavors from things like the acidities in lemon juice, spices and herbs and things that have a positive impact on your diet, rather than negative. They're simply balanced and healthy meals. That's how I would define fitness meals.
3. Are the meals designed to be eaten as regular meals throughout the day or are they designed to be eaten around a workout?
When I started about 2 years ago the idea was to offer 4 meals a day, 5 days a week. People would be on their own for breakfast and a lighter snack later in the evening. So that was meant to be 6 smaller meals per day. Then they'd also be on their own for the weekend. As things have evolved, the menu has expanded and become more of an a la carte selection that gives people choices that they can eat a few times a day or however they want to incorporate the meals into their schedule. For some hard core athletes they may eat 4 or even 5 meals a day. But other people may only eat 1 a day as a way to supplement their diet and add a little variety. I don't tell people how to eat - I just provide the tools to help them eat better if they want to. So that's how things have evolved and we've seen a wide variety of people that the meals appeal to - from an 85 year old woman to a 24 year old guy who spends a lot of time in the gym. People want to eat well and that's universal.
4. Who's the main audience for you? Is it people who are trying to diet or is it more people who are into working out?
My audience has been changing in the past 6 months to people who want to eat healthy and don't want to obsess about it. They still want to eat well and have flavor in their diet but they're not going to be working out all the time or eating on schedule every few hours. They simply want to eat healthy food they can feel good about. They want to feel good after eating without having to obsess about what they eat or count calories.
5. Do families order your meals or is it more for couples or individuals?
It's a little bit of both, but mostly individuals. We're adding an option to the menu for items tailored to a family of 4. We'll package the proteins and vegetables separately, but they'll be for a family of 4. That's a next step for us but it's where the market is moving. People want their families to eat well but that's only going to happen if you can provide something that tastes good. That's where we fit in and it's a big market for us down the road.
6. The meals are 500 calories or less. Isn't that pretty small?
Once you start taking sugars, dairy and other high calories components out of the meal, what's left is the high quality calories so you don't need as many. And the meals are meant to be eaten more frequently. If you eat 400-500 calories every few hours you'll keep your metabolism going. And if you're focused on good quality calories through good nutrition and you're avoiding poor eating choices you'll be doing your body a favor. There's a lot of products that have more calories than they need because they contain unhealthy things.
7. What kind of food do you offer?
As far as the proteins go I do a lot of chicken, fish, pork, turkey, beef and a vegetarian dish as well. I make a lot of derivatives of classic dishes. You'll see a chicken paella type of dish made with chicken, Spanish rice, and a red pepper pesto or something like that along with vegetables. There's a lot of healthy cuisines. If you just back out the things that are not so good for you and maybe substitute if for something else, then you'll have a dish that's bright, flavorful and healthy at the same time. I do that a lot.
8. Do you do many ethnic dishes?
If do when I see something like a Thai curry or a peanut sauce that I know will have a ton of flavor and if I can do it in a healthy way. I draw a lot on Spanish dishes. I went to a French school, so I use a lot of French techniques. There's a real European-Mediterranean feel to my cuisine.
9. Do you have a set menu or do you rotate it?
I change it weekly, usually on Sunday, but sometimes I'll change things during the week too. I decided early on to price all the dishes very similarly. So, if something isn't selling I know it's not about the price - it's just that people don't want that dish - so I'll change it out for something that people do want. Some items will stay around longer if they're particularly popular. But, in general I like to change things up just because I like having variety. I want to be able to introduce people to new things. My background is fine dining and that demands constant change. That's ingrained in me now - to change things constantly. I think people like to discover new things too.
10. How are people generally ordering your meals - is it one at a time, a week at a time, or something different?
The average order is about 15-20 meals at a time. Some people order more or less and I welcome both of those choices.
11. How do people place their orders?
People order online. We have free delivery for orders of $100 or more and we deliver Monday - Friday. There's a $5 delivery charge for smaller orders. People can pick up their orders at our facility on San Marco Boulevard. We're there from 6am to 3 or 4pm during the week.
12. Do you have a retail outlet?
No, it's where we cook, so it's just for pickup. If you live near the Beach, you can also pick up from Jax Sports Nutrition on Atlantic Boulevard. You can also order through them.
13. What's your delivery radius?
It's the Jacksonville area, although we've gone outside of that on occasion.
14. How do the meals arrive? Are they frozen?
They're fresh and vacuum sealed by default. About 1 in 10 want us to freeze their meals, and we'll do that on request. Vacuum sealing is our preservation method. We don't use preservatives and we don't add sodium, which often acts as a preservative in many processed foods. The meals will stay fresh for 10-12 days in your refrigerator or up to 6 months in your freezer.
15. How do you cook the meals?
The best method is to put them in simmering water for 8-10 minutes - they'll come out incredible. But you can microwave them for 2 minutes if you want.
16. What's your relationship with Jax Sports Nutrition?
We have a great relationship with them. You can order through them and pick up at their retail location. With deliveries you need to be there when we're dropping the food off. With Jax Sports Nutrition you can pick up on your own schedule. They're open from 10am - 8pm. For many people that's very convenient, especially if they're in the Beach area.
17. When did you start J. William Culinary?
In March of 2011. I was transitioning from being a chef at Matthews and was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I knew I didn't want to keep working a line - I had done it for over 20 years and as a family man I wanted something different.
18. Did you ever think of having your own restaurant, or do you see J. William Culinary eventually becoming a normal restaurant?
That was always the dream from when I started cooking at 16. There have been little opportunities here and there but it's not easy to do without going into a lot of debt, and I'm not a person who likes to be in debt. It never happened in a way that I was 100% comfortable with. Doing J. William Culinary allowed me to do something with a lot less capital while still being a business owner. This allows me to work the hours I want to and it's turned into something that I didn't expect in terms of the amount of joy I get from it.
19. Is J. William Culinary just you now, or do you have a staff?
I have a staff of about 5. I do all the cooking but I have people who help with everything else it takes to run the business.
20. What is your culinary background?
I've been in the kitchen for 23 years, since I was 16. I worked with Matthews and the Medure Group here in Jacksonville for 7 or 8 years, either at Restaurant Medure, Matthews or Takeaway Gourmet. I went to the French Culinary Institute in New York. I've done fine dining in some form or fashion my whole career.
21. With your fine dining background, why not go into catering or something like that? How did you put fine dining and fitness together?
I've always worked out in some way. I got really, really into it 7 or 8 years ago. I was out of shape and working a ton. I was spending more time at bars than I needed to. I made a decision to live a healthy lifestyle - to stop drinking and start eating well. At that time I also started spending a lot of time in the gym. That's where my enthusiasm for fitness came from.
22. A number of your meals are consistent with a paleo style of eating. Can you tell us what that is?
I'm not a dietician or nutritionist and really hesitate when people ask me for advice in that area. I was just making healthy meals and was getting more and more request to do paleo-friendly meals. We were already doing a lot of gluten free stuff and dairy-free stuff. I was initially intimidated by the paleo idea until I started looking into it and understanding that a lot of it works with what I was already doing anyway. I like to use use rice and beans in what I make, but if I just backed out that stuff along with a few minor tweaks I was able to offer a type of meal that a lot of people were asking for. For example, we have a seared chicken breast with spiced sweet potatoes and spinach-almond pesto. That allows me to incorporate elements that are important to paleo cuisine in a way that's harmonious and tastes really, really good. I want to have a wide variety of what I offer, as long as it's healthy. Some people want rice with their meals, and others don't. Paleo is one of the styles I'll provide choices around, but I'll have other styles available as well.
23. If someone wanted to try J. William Culinary out for the first time, what would you suggest they order to get a sense of what your food is like and if it's appropriate for them?
I talk all day to people who are trying us for the first time. I usually try to understand what sorts of things they like or what their dietary goals are. So things will be different for different people. But, if I was to point people towards the most popular items I'd suggest they try our beef meatballs with brown rice or the turkey chili. The turkey chili is really good - it's a low carb dish but the carbs we do use are things like organic spinach which is a fibrous, healthy carbohydrate. Our Caribbean turkey meatballs are also very popular. These are probably our 3 most popular dishes and I'd encourage people to start with those. From there I'd let the meals speak for themselves and let people decide how they want to use the meals in a way that works for them. I encourage people to start with 3 or 4 meals so nothing sits around in their fridge. Try it and see if it works for you. If it does, then come back and order a larger quantity. What people will find it that it's simply good food. Whether or not they focus on the fact that it's also healthy, they'll start to think of it as just something that tastes good and feels good to eat. What we find is that once people try it out, more often then not, they'll come back and place another order. They'll find their own way to incorporate the meals into their day. It may be just having one meal in the middle of the day as a way to have some good energy to keep them productive at their desk while avoiding the temptation to have fast food or something from the vending machine.
24. Are there certain items that have surprised you by their popularity?
Yes. I did a minced, sweet and sour pork with braised cabbage, golden raisins and apples and I thought it was beautiful. It was stunning to look at and I loved it. I also love red cabbage. It's a low carb dish and I thought it might sell or it might not, but I was a little skeptical. It's something I get requests for a lot now. It's a dish that visually looks good and then when you try it you experience the balance of spicy and a little bittersweet with the cabbage. That's a dish that surprised me in a great way.
25. What would you view as your signature dish?
The Han Solo of the whole deal is the Caribbean turkey meatball. It's the one that is popular enough but that can really blow people away because of all the flavors that come in. It's a slightly spicy meatball with a mango salsa that adds some acidity. There's cinnamon and ginger in the sweet potatoes that really, really works well together. All our meals have been driven by what people want. At one point someone asked me for plain turkey patties with sweet potatoes. I thought to myself that I could do better then that so I started to develop the dish and as soon as I put it on the menu it just stuck. In a way it's a metaphor for how things have gone. People ask you to do something, or I see a need, and then I try to make it better and better. Give them more then what they're asking for.
26. Do you have catering?
Only on very rare occasions. My focus is on the core business. My business model is a stripped down take on a restaurant and catering is anything but stripped down. I have to be careful at times to avoid spreading myself too thin. There are a ton of great ideas, and we do offer a lot, but I want to offer just a few things and do them really, really well. If I try to do too many things and can't do them really, really well, I'm not going to be happy with that.
27. Can you tell us about your cooking classes?
They're mainly by request. We need 8 or 9 people for a class. Our facilities are perfect for classes. I used to do a ton of them when I was the chef at Matthews or Restaurant Medure. People who know me from that will often request that I put on a class. It's also a great way to introduce people to our products and what we do. When we show people how to do what we do then they can order our meals or go home and make it themselves. The whole process is interactive, getting people involved. And you feed them at the same time. It's a lot of fun. It also gives me the opportunity to show exactly what goes into everything.
28. What's next for your business?
This is something that makes me really, really happy. I'm more than happy to go to work and spend of time of time there every day. When I was at Matthews or Restaurant Medure, those places are really high end and classy. People always wanted to talk to the chef, but I never got the same sort of response as I do now for a meal that costs $7 or $8. I've made a ton of friends doing this. People respond to it in a way that's humbling. What will happen with this business is that it will be taken in one direction or another. Retail is probably our next step. I'd love to see our stuff on the shelves of places like Publix. But all of that is going to flow from the quality of the product and the service. If I can keep making it better and better good things will follow.
29. Why is the reaction you've seen so much greater for a meal that costs $7 - $8 versus a fine dining experience at Matthews or Restaurant Medure?
When I was the Executive Chef at Matthews and would make a foie gras, I'd get a thumbs up when people were on the way out, or people would want to meet me. But that was on occasion. But this, for some reason … I think people really appreciate value. When you're over-producing for what they're expecting; when people are spending $8 at a fast food drive-thru and then they spend $8.00 with me to get something that is so much more - and is so much tastier and healthier - I think it's incredible for them. I'm addicted to their response. I never really expected it. For a lot of people, they want to eat healthy, but it's hard to do. It takes a lot of time to cook. It's not always convenient. Or it may not taste really good. We can help with all those things. That's what people people respond to, I think. I love it. I'm surprised by it, but I love it.