Postcards from the Kitchen: an interview with Chef Jeffrey Schlissel
He’s the Undisputed Kingpin of The Bacon Cartel
“Show me your tats!"
I’d been on a call with Tampa Chef Jeffrey Schlissel for about 30 minutes, and I’d been seeing flashes of his tattoos on the Zoom screen. It was time for the full view.
Jeffrey held his arms up in front of the screen, showing off a butcher’s diagram of a cow on his right forearm and a pig on his left.
“I call it my bacon cheeseburger,” he says.
In a way, the tattoos tell me everything I need to know about Jeffrey Schlissel. Whatever it is he’s into. He’s all in.
Whether it’s his vision for a new butcher shop and market, his mission to raise awareness around mental health (including industry suicides and his own food addiction), or his willingness to talk about the National Restaurant Association’s questionable lobbying practices, there’s nothing that’s off limits.
On our call, he was wearing a red t-shirt that said, “I’d smoke that,” with graphics of a chicken, cow, and pig. So like every great conversation, we started with the food.
After working for a major conglomerate for about eight years and watching foreign companies taking over large companies in the American market, Jeffrey knew he wanted something different. He launched the Bacon Cartel, which was originally a restaurant located in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“It morphed into this passionate love affair with everything smoke, everything barbecue,” he says. “I started doing rubs and playing with woods like cherry and pecan. Cypress and oak.”
He also has a keen sense of humor and named many of his rubs after signature marijuana formulas like Acapulco Gold or Columbian Gold. “I was at a Farmer’s Market with my rubs,” he says, “and a cop came up to me. I had these little dime bags with my label on it. And he goes, ‘Well what are these?’ I’m like, ‘It’s a dime bag.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ After a laugh, I said, ‘It’s a rub.’ And he’s like, ‘I want all of them.’ He bought them to give to his friends.”
Sur la Table meets Local Butcher Shop
After losing his sister-in-law to COVID, Jeffrey and his wife moved to Tampa to help care for their extended family. It’s where he’s planning to open the BC Butcher Shop and Market – if only he can find a suitable and affordable retail space.
“It has been the hardest thing to find a brick-and-mortar shop,” he says. “I want a butcher shop that features artisanal charcuterie with locally farmed animals. I’m a big farmers’ advocate, and I literally have farmers less than two hours from me.” Here, he gives a shoutout to Circle C Farm owned by Nicole Cruz, who he describes as “a phenomenal farmer. I want to do that because it supports our local community.” He also envisions showcasing locally roasted coffee beans from Java World and olive oil. The olives are from Greece but the oil is made by an industrious small business owner in St. Pete.
But locally farmed animals and products are just half the equation. The unexpected twist in Jeffrey’s vision for his shop can be summed up in three words, “vegan butcher shop.” That sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but Jeffrey is (almost) equally fascinated with plant-based options.
He loves serving surprises like beet tartare (beeT, not beeF) to his meatatarians. Someone told me, “I don’t eat beets. And I’m like, ‘Good, let me get you a little taste.’ And when they tasted it, it was like, ‘How did you get beets to taste like meat?’ And I’m like, ‘Just magic.’”
Jeffrey’s butcher shop and market concept has it all.
Will somebody, please, get this man a shop?!
Causes Near and Dear
Did I mention that nothing is off-limits in a conversation with Jeffrey Schlissel?
We talked about the controversy surrounding the National Restaurant Association.
The association used profits from their required courses for restaurant workers to lobby against minimum wage increases for those same workers. You can read about it in this New York Times article and you can hear Jeffrey talking about it on the Walk-in Talk podcast.
On the podcast, you can skip ahead to the 30:50 mark for that discussion but you’ll miss lots of other fun and possibly risqué discussions with Jeffrey.
We talked about mental health.
When Jeffrey was 18, he tried to complete suicide. He felt he had nobody to turn to. But he was fortunate. He said something to his parents and got the help he needed. Now, he’s determined to be there for others.
“We need to shine the light on the pink elephant,” says Jeffrey. “We need to talk about this. We need to have pre-shifts with our staffs. Because, listen, we’re [chefs] at the top in drug addiction as far as careers go. We are at the top in alcohol abuse. Everyone who has an issue is drawn into the restaurant industry, whether it’s somebody getting out of the military who has PTSD, somebody who has addictions, or OCD.
“We seem to be that beacon of light that says, ‘Come this way, we’ll wrap our arms around you.’ And we do. It is a family unit. But we don’t always talk about those things that need to be talked about. We push them under the rug. And I’ve had way too many family members, way too many friends, who have passed away by taking their own life.
“Somewhere in the world, right now, someone’s attempting suicide,” he says. “It happens every 26.2 seconds.”
IMPORTANT: 9-8-8 has been designated as the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are considering suicide, please ask for help.
We talked about food addiction.
Jeffrey is a self-described “nerdy, dorked out, geeked out kid who loved to eat and I loved to cook.” Unfortunately, those obsessions also led to food addictions. He now works with a therapist to address that problem, along with issues around OCD and ADHD.
Here’s what his therapist said:
I’m battling a billion-dollar industry that wants to put you on a diet… not to fix you. It’s your mental health that needs to be fixed. Not your waistline or what you’re putting in your mouth. Because as soon as you get off that diet and start eating again, you’re right back on [that diet].
And food addictions aren’t always about compulsive overeating and binging. They’re also about anorexia and bulimia. Like so many of us in the U.S., Jeffrey grew up with depression-era grandparents who believed in cleaning your plate at every meal, saying: “There are starving children in Ethopia.” The truth is, even though you can help in other ways, you still can’t send your leftover food to starving children in Ethiopia.
The industry itself doesn’t lend itself to healthy eating habits. “We have a saying in the industry,” says Jeffrey. “Eat it now, taste it later.”
Here are two things he’s learned.
“Sit down and eat family meals like a normal person,” he says. “Put your fork down sometimes. These days, I’ll put my fork down on my plate and push it to one side, and just take a moment to get a sip and breathe and enjoy the food.
“I also told that fat kid inside me to shut up. He’s no longer in charge.”
He recognized that to be around for his daughter, his focus on health and his relationship with food had to change. And he’s hoping the industry’s relationship with super-sized lifestyle can change as well. I agree when he says the giant beverages at the local convenience store and restaurant portions border on the ridiculous.
“We need to stop this,” he says. “We have an obligation to our guests as chefs that we should give the right portions and we need to make it wholesome. We need to change the mindset of what’s going on in the United States now.”
I know that as a consumer, I’d be delighted to visit a restaurant and pay full price for a delicious meal without later waddling out feeling over-stuffed and balancing boxes of leftovers (that I’ll eventually have to throw away but felt guilty leaving behind).
Three Signature Dishes
I asked Jeffrey which dishes he’s known for, and he shared three.
Filet with risotto with Brie and a blueberry reduction
“When I was 16 years old, my parents were out making a condolence call. I made a filet and risotto. I had a baked brie or sauteed brie encrusted with almonds and herbs. And I had a blueberry reduction. I was so proud. And when they came home, my dad was like, ‘that is bar none the best thing I’ve ever had.’ Until his death in 2017, it was his favorite.”
Bacon (of course)
“At the former restaurant,” he says, “we did a bourbon-infused bacon jerk sandwich. It’s a BLT, but we called it The Jerk. We added very thin, slivered red onion and added romaine and beautiful fresh tomatoes. Then, we had aji verde on it. The aji verde is a Peruvian sauce that just has so much complexity to it. And then the jerk comes in with the spice. It was just outrageous. We served it on a brioche bread it’s still one of my favorites.”
Plant-based: Watermelon “tuna” and tofu eggs
“One of my greatest accomplishments was getting into a fight at my old restaurant because we made a salad nicoise. It was 100% plant-based and the guest was complaining that it was real tuna… it was a real egg. Let me tell you, it was seared watermelon that was smoked. It was a tofu egg white with a potato and nutritional yeast center. And then we used black Himalayan salt, which had a very high concentrated sulfur dioxide – which is the egg smell – and that’s why we got into the fight. Or rather, a disagreement. I love that plant-based foods push me to be different and creative.
I had to ask how the… disagreement… turned out. “We got something else for them,” says Jeffrey. “I wasn’t going to keep arguing, but I had to laugh when they said: it just tastes too much like egg!”
Here’s a challenge for you
“Don’t be afraid of flavor!” says Jeffrey. He’s a fan of the book, Flavor Matrix, which explains the science behind why some food pairings mesh well and others are to be avoided at all costs. “Read the book. Go to the school of YouTube. And realize that a recipe is just something that gets your creative juices flowing.”
When we took a look at his tattoos, it brought the whole conversation right back around to BACON.
In one of the Walk-in Talk podcasts, which you can find on Spotify or other podcast sites, there’s an episode featuring Bourbon and Bacon. Jeffrey and I agreed that that was the ultimate foodie challenge.
“During the episode, I put a strip of cooked bacon in my bourbon,” says Jeffrey. “And the host, Carl Fiadini, asked what I was doing. I said, ‘making it magical.’ I’m telling you: make an Old-Fashioned, throw in a piece of cooked bacon, and enjoy yourself, because it’s absolutely mesmerizing.”