Some of us discover our path in life through a series of trials and errors. For others, all it takes is a special moment. This is what happened to Pared Pro Jackson Touk, who made a complete career change and decided to take the plunge into the kitchen.
After high school, a friend convinced Jackson to start selling cars. As a young entrepreneur, he was drawn to the idea of making quick cash. “My friend said that you can make $10,000 a month selling cars. At that time in my life, it was something I couldn’t say no to,” Jackson said. After seven and half years in automotive sales, he started longing for something more fulfilling.
A longtime lover of food, Jackson’s tipping point came while watching the Food Network. “I saw a commercial for the Art Institute of California Orange County. I decided to head down to their open house and I just fell in love. On the first day of the hands-on kitchen class I knew this was going to be my life. I was just in love with everything about cooking.”
After graduating, Jackson did his externship at Pinot Provence, a French wine bar in Costa Mesa, California. Reflecting on his first day in a professional kitchen, Jackson mused, “In culinary school, they make you feel like you are already a chef. But you are far from it, not even close.” On his first day, he was given two 50 pound bags of onions and asked to small dice them in an hour. “Oui, Chef” was Jackson’s only response. Jackson will never forget that day he spent frantically dicing onions. “The chef kept checking his watch, and I could tell time was almost up because he was starting to yell at the guy who was supervising me.” Fortunately, he finished in time and lived to cook another day. He would return and work for free for eight more weeks before his externship was over.
Jackson then decided to take a leap of faith and moved to Vegas to cut his teeth. “I decided it was time to get out, so I went to Vegas to pursue my excitement for food.” His first mission was to eat, trying every Mexican, Venezuelan, Thai, Korean, Mediterranean hole-in-the-wall he could find. “I had to try everything,” Jackson recalled. He became obsessed with technique, “The best thing about cooking is transformation. You can bring in ‘choice-select’ cuts, apply the right care and methods, and people will think that it’s prime.”
Although initially a believer in the power of regional comfort food, Jackson also developed a curiosity for the other side of the cooking spectrum. So he decided it was time to launch his fine dining career. Working at Bouchon at the Venetian, Jackson got his first glimpse of a Thomas Keller kitchen. Recalling his time there, Jackson emphasized the efficiency of the kitchen brigade, “It was one team, one dream. Always moving with a sense of urgency. The coolest thing was that they have completely in-house bakery and a closed-circuit TV that allows you to interact with all the Keller restaurants in the US.”
Cooking in Vegas has its perks. For example, the community is very close-knit. “Once they find out you are a chef, they take care of you,” Jackson said of the Vegas hospitality community. From restaurants to nightlife, the Vegas industry always looks out for its own, “Which can also get you in trouble, especially if your apartment is close to the strip, it’s not uncommon to close down the restaurant, go out until the sun starts to rise, get a few hours of sleep, then be back on the line again by 3 pm.”
After five years, Jackson had worked at a few different restaurants, including Goodwich and Beauty and Essex. What ultimately led him to leave Vegas was a desire to find bigger opportunities where his skills would be valued. “The starting wage for skilled cooks in Vegas is just over ten an hour, it’s hard in a place that is so expensive like Vegas,” Jackson recalled. “The only way to get paid what you are worth is to join a union, and memberships are usually reserved for the local workforce.” Being a California native he saw little chance of getting the pay he wanted for the work that he devoted his life to so he moved back to his home state, but this time to the Bay Area.
Jackson was working full time at Flagship at Airbnb when he first signed up for Pared. “I miss working in restaurants. I miss the rush. Now that I’m working banker’s hours, I have my weekends wide open,” Jackson exclaimed. As more restaurants sign up for Pared in the San Jose area, he is optimistic about tapping into that market.
Shortly after this interview, Flagship lost the account for Airbnb. “We all got sent home, 150 people, just like that.” Jackson does not know what the future holds for all the employees that he worked alongside, but he feels relieved that he has a backup plan. “I’m so glad I have Pared.”