Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
The executive chef at Lark in downtown Janesville, Jennifer Tillou grew up and still resides across the border in Rockford, Illinois. When she’s not creating culinary art in Bower City, she’s often headed toward the gym, kayaking or hiking/adventuring as her schedule allows. A travel fan, she lists New Orleans as a particularly favorite destination.
Tillou is a graduate of Blackhawk Technical College, and though she makes a living being creative with food, she lists her personal favorites as tacos, mashed potatoes and doughnuts. At home, Tillou cares for a menagerie of pets including two rats, two cats and a dog with such colorful names as Chickpea, Eloise, Mew, Arthur and Veggie Burrito.
To learn more about Tillou, visit LarkJanesville.com.
1. What is the single item/tool in your kitchen that you would be most lost without? A sharp knife. If I’m trying to cut anything with a dull knife, I get frustrated. But a close second is a pair of spring-action tongs. I could rule the world with those things.
2. Have you ever cried over a movie? Which one? I don’t want to be that girl that tells you I cry every time I watch “The Notebook,” (because I do) but the last movie I cried at was “Love, Simon.” I know that it’s incredibly hard to come out to your parents, and when Simon came out to his parents in that movie, I lost it. His parents exhibited straight up love and acceptance. I know that’s not the case for so many people out there, but I think it’s a great example to start with when that uncomfortable moment comes up.
3 What made you decide to become a chef? I decided to become a chef because I couldn’t see myself sitting at a computer for the rest of my life getting headaches. I thought, “Hey, I like food and cooking. I’ll go get a kitchen job and if I like it, I’ll go to culinary school. If I don’t like it, I’ll figure something else out.” Eight years later ... here I am.
4. When I’m in the kitchen, I like to have a glass of wine and music. Are there any rituals or comfort items you like to have nearby while you’re being culinarily creative? Whenever I cook at home, I need music and wine. Anything from Louis Armstrong to Fetty Wap to The Fugees to Foster the People. I’m all over the place, but music and wine are a must. I also have to save three pieces of my food for my two rats and my dog.
5. What did you have for dinner last night? I was feeling low-key, so I met up with my best friend at Oscars in Rockford and maxed out on loaded waffle fries and boneless wings with some sort of bourbon glaze and ranch. And, of course, beer.
6. What is your favorite condiment/spice? I wanted to give you a cool spice such as cloves or allspice or cumin, but then I thought about ranch. And I absolutely love ranch. There is no shame in my condiment game.
7. Do you read cookbooks or watch cooking shows? When it comes to cookbooks, I like everything ... but especially anything by Francis Mallman, Eric Ripert or Yottam Ottolenghi. Also, anything with Southern influence because I love New Orleans, Southern cooking, food and culture. I love “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain even though it isn’t a “cookbook” but a true “cook’s book.” And when it comes to shows, I love to binge on “Top Chef.”
8. Name an ingredients that you simply won’t use or would prefer not to use? Liquid smoke is absolutely repulsive, and I don’t want it anywhere near my food or just me, in general. If you’re trying to incorporate smoke into a dish, please do it the right way. #sorrynotsorry
9. Not including anything you’ve prepared, what is your favorite dish and favorite place to eat? My mom’s mashed potatoes, my dad’s ribs or when he makes Swiss steak. Actually, anything my dad makes. My favorite places to eat are Johnny Pamcakes in Rockford, Illinois, for breakfast—hands down. And on Sundays, me and my best friend love to indulge on scallop nadare roll from Shogun/Izakaya. When I get a chance to leave town to go to Milwaukee, I try to go to Goodkind in Bay View. Awesome brunch, awesome dinner and awesome service.
10. If you could learn to do anything, what would it be? I’d love to learn how to sail a boat. It’s on my bucket list. Or change my own brakes on my car.
11. Are you invited to dinner parties, or are people afraid to cook for you? I am invited to dinner parties every now and then, and that makes my heart really warm. People are sooooo afraid to cook for me ... especially if I start dating someone. Honestly, I hate instant mashed potatoes, but if someone else is going to make me a whole meal with instant mashed potatoes, I’m still going to have two helpings of mashed potatoes and whatever else is prepared because the gesture of someone else cooking for me makes me happier than most people know. And then I’ll bring home leftovers and max out on those the next day. Any chef would be happy if you made him or her food. We don’t want to cook ALL THE TIME. I’d be happy with a bowl of cereal that I didn’t have to make, to be honest.
12. How do you build your menu? Are your specials based on market prices or seasonal items? Prices always matter, but certain things that are only in season for a short amount of time, I like to make those a priority. As an example, berries have short seasons, so we try to do all we can with berries. Otherwise, we go with the seasons and make plans for what’s coming in and what’s nearing the end. Ebb and flow.
13. Name something that is easier to prepare than people think it is, and something that is harder to prepare than people think. Something that is easier to prepare than you would think are biscuits. Just don’t over-work them, and you have some awesome biscuits. Something that is harder than one would think ... pasta. Real pasta made by hand is hard. If you don’t have a machine to work it for you, it’s a lot of work, like 20 minutes of kneading. And if you have terrible wrists like I do, it’s that much harder. But the result is amazing.
14. Name a dish you’ve had at another restaurant that you wish you’d have come up with. The peanut butter pie with Earl Grey shortbread at Acre in Auburn, Alabama. I could eat a whole pie in one sitting. Perfect textures and perfect flavors. Basically, perfection in pie form. (If someone could get me that recipe, I’d be forever grateful.)
15. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. Live fish scare me. A lot. Anything with a shell that is alive, I can do that no problem. But minnows, goldfish, any living fish ... I don’t touch it. I might cry or jump out of a boat if it gets too close. I’m afraid to swim in lakes because the thought of live fish sucking on my toes ... NOPE.
16. What’s the one question you are asked regularly after someone finds out you are a chef? When I tell people I’m a chef, they ALWAYS ask, “What’s your favorite dish?” I hate that question. I’ve had conversations with my kitchen about this question, too. We all get asked the same question, and we hate it. Do you want to know my favorite food? Do you want to know my favorite style of cooking? My favorite cooking technique? It’s just a boring question. Ask us where we love to eat, or if there’s a certain culture’s food we’d love to try or have tried. That makes it fun and leads into a fun conversation.
17. Would you say you are you more of an introvert or extrovert? Introvert. I’m awkward and weird. So depending on the group of people or situation, I’m a quiet observer. I’m perfectly fine sitting by myself and people watching, which to a lot of people makes me weird. It’s like, “Why is that girl over there sitting alone?” Then people come over to me and start conversations.
18. At the grocery store, what item always goes in your cart whether you need it or not? Kerrygold butter. The best butter I’ve ever used. I love it. Also, Ritz crackers and coffee creamer. Household staples for me.
19. What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Pig brains. I feel like that’s really not that weird though. They were good, too. I also ate crickets once, but those were boring. Try anything once is my usual motto (within reason).
20. If you weren’t an executive chef, what other career do you think you would have pursued? I originally started going to school for graphic design, but then culinary school happened. Now, I think about retiring and starting a petting zoo, or getting a stand started where I’d make cool popcorn and lemonade.