Interview: Chef Jameson Chavez of Wilmington, North Carolina’s Manna

The chef specializes in flavors of the South and Southwest
Jameson Chavez
Courtesy Jameson Chavez

Chavez first discovered cooking in the Boy Scouts.

I just sampled chef Jameson Chavez’s cooking at Manna, the restaurant where he serves as executive chef in Wilmington, NC. He’s an excellent chef, and I ate too much; the food was simply too delicious to put my fork down. It was an evening of thoughtful conjunctions of flavors, and his attention to detail and amazing skills are totally evident.

Chavez, 34, is self-trained, but if you ever get to Wilmington, NC and have the opportunity to dine at Manna, you won’t regret it. Biblically, manna is the food that descended from heaven on a daily basis to feed the children of Israel as they fled Pharaoh; it’s physical is evidence of the love of God for his children. If the food wasn’t so utterly spectacular here, the name would seem pretentious, but it actually works, with Jameson Chavez leading the way in the kitchen.

The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking?
Chef Jameson Chavez:
I got into cooking in Boy Scouts, and then later in college when I took a few required courses; plus, my first job was flipping burgers at Whataburger. I was always in the industry washing dishes or cooking, even while I was studying to be a paramedic.

Do you have a specialty dish?
Not any one dish in particular. But as for ingredients, I have an affinity for chiles (with an "e;" I’m from New Mexico); and the flavors of the Southwest, Mexico, and Spain.[related]

Do you prefer a particular style of cooking?
French technique as a base, and I build on that with the cuisines I just mentioned.

What kind of atmosphere do you create in the kitchen?
I like to create an atmosphere where people enjoy working. With this, I expect that everyone works hard, is focused, and contributes to the team. My kitchen is a team that only functions because of all its members, from the dish station to the executive chef. We work to have a team that is well trained and can work well together even when the weeds are taller than you. We do have fun when it's the right time, and try to not take ourselves too seriously.

What do you look for when you hire other chefs to assist you in the kitchen?
Hardworking, takes direction well, is aware and present in the kitchen, thinks for themselves, being funny helps, creative, kitchen experience but doesn't have to be a culinary grad with a long list of stages.

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What do you plan for your future?
Eventually I would love to have a large chef garden connected with a small restaurant…or just one or the other. I would like to get more involved in helping people learn to grow their own food and then cook said food.