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Taste: Melvyn’s Executive Chef Jennifer Town

She’s bringing new ideas to the menu with appreciation for the restaurant’s storied past.

Tiffany Carter Restaurants, Watch & Listen - Restaurants

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Foodie writer Tiffany Carter adds a special ingredient to Chef Jennifer Town's Steak Diane at Melvyn's Restaurant and Lounge in Palm Springs.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVEN SALISBURY

Chef Jennifer Town knows her way around a kitchen. She’s been serving up delectable dishes at some of the finest restaurants in Greater Palm Springs, including The Purple Room and now the iconic Melvyn’s Restaurant and Lounge.

I joined her in the kitchen, her home away from home, had her whip up one of the restaurant’s most classic dishes — Steak Diane (prepared table side if you order off the menu) — and then we sat down with a glass of wine and chatted about her culinary prowess that will be on display at the upcoming Palm Desert Food + Wine, March 23-25.

VIDEO: Executive Chef Jennifer Town enlists the help of writer Tiffany Carter in creating Melvyn’s signature Steak Diane. (Video by Steven Salisbury).

What made you become a chef?

I was actually going to school at USC studying international relations and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My father had just moved to Vermont and I went to visit him. A friend of his was an instructor at New England Culinary Institute and so we went there for a tour and just to hang out. Halfway throughout the tour, it was just an epiphany, and I knew this is what I was supposed to do. I went back home to Los Angeles, packed up my little Mustang as full as I could, and drove cross-country and started culinary school almost a month later … and have not looked back.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?

I have no idea. And I think about that too. What would happen if I couldn’t be a chef anymore? I just love food, preparing food, feeding people, and being hospitable. I love to come out and talk to the guests and see how they are doing. I love working in the kitchen, in the restaurants. I think I would just be miserable if I were doing something else.

What is your favorite cuisine to cook?

Italian by far. It’s my favorite cuisine to cook and to eat. I was actually born in Switzerland near the Italian border. My parents lived in Italy for seven years when I was younger so I lived there and I have been very fortunate to go back and stay with family and friends. When I was 15 my parents sent my best friend and me back for the summer to stay with what I like to call my “Italian mom and dad.” Her kitchen was about the size of this table, probably smaller. Way before farm-to-table was even popular, she had a garden on her patio. She taught me the joy of how just four or five fresh ingredients could make an amazing meal. She really gave me the passion for food and cooking.

Is there a chef you admire?

Suzanne Goin in Los Angeles. She really pioneered female chefs, one of the first ones I recall to come into the limelight. She really also helped to pioneer fresh local ingredients in her dishes. I really like her style of cooking. It’s not fussy. There are not 75 ingredients in one dish. Her cooking is very simple, classic, but delicious.

Any pet peeves in the kitchen?

(laughs) I have a lot. I guess some of my biggest pet peeves are cutting corners and not doing things right. Whistling. It’s distracting to everybody. I do think having fun in the kitchen is really important. Even in just the food and beverage industry. It’s a tough job and it’s really stressful. If you can’t have a good time, have fun, and really love and enjoy what you’re doing then you should find that extra career that I couldn’t.

Coming over to Melvyn’s, which is one of the most iconic restaurants in the desert, what was that transition like for you? How did you bring your personal touch to the menu, while keeping with the Melvyn’s tradition?

It actually ended up being a great fit for me because before working at The Purple Room Supper Club, I actually looked at old supper club menus from the 1960s and ’70s to kind of do a modern play on the old dishes. So I already trained my brain to look at the old dishes and make them new. People were really worried I was going to take away tableside service and all the old classics. But I think the tableside service is amazing. Instead of the pounded filet, we grill the filet in the back. Changing up some of the sauces, maybe using a tiny less butter. Making little twists to make the old classics new again. People have been coming here for more than 40 years and change is not always easy, but I think we are winning them over and seeing that a little update in the food while keeping with the classics will keep Melvyn’s here for another 50 years.

What has your time being a chef in the desert taught you what people are looking for in a dining experience?

The Coachella Valley is a different beast than L.A. or San Francisco. I think people are really looking for the small mom-and-pop places and not the big corporations. There’s such a big sense of community in the valley. I feel like people are going toward the small little diners and the places that have been here forever. Someone asked me if Palm Springs is going to turn into Las Vegas with famous celebrity chefs coming in. I don’t think so. People here don’t want that. People want the small community feel. They want the maitre’d knowing their name. I feel like people here are more about the intimate experience than the super fancy, big-scale dining.

For more information and tickets to Palm Desert Food + Wine, visit palmdesertfoodandwine.com.