"Ever since I was about 8 years old, I would stand in the kitchen and watch my mother cook," said Jones. "I would ask her a million questions, and she loved it."
Jones works for Aramark as director of concessions at Adventure Aquarium, in Camden. No, he's not a chef, but he does have chef friends whom he goes to for advice and inspiration. One of his friends introduced him to authentic Italian cuisine.
"I love the simple use of ingredients and that there is no waste," Jones said. "When [Italian cuisine] is done well, it is phenomenal." Two of his go-to cookbooks are Mario Batali's Simple Italian Food: Recipes from my Two Villages and local restaurateur Marc Vetri's Il Viaggio: A Culinary Journey.
Jones finds success in the basics. His favorite tools are a zester and a mortar and pestle. The zester makes it easy to add citrus-skin brightness and flavor to dishes such as shrimp scampi, while the mortar and pestle help create flavorful spice rubs.
Cooking is a hands-on skill, he said. "You have to get in the kitchen and try. Nothing beats a failure but a try."
Jones' most informative failure was risotto. "I must have made risotto 10 times before it came out," he said. "I wanted to do it my way. I was arrogant and impatient. Until I submitted to the risotto, I never had risotto."
Now it's a favorite family dish - and an excellent example of the kitchen adage to add hot ingredients to hot foods and cold to cold.
One of his biggest successes came last Thanksgiving. He created his own spice rub, adding cumin and cinnamon to the traditional garlic, sage, rosemary and thyme. He gave the stuffing a citrus kick with oranges and lemons.
"I got the idea from a favorite chicken recipe that used tarragon and citrus," explained Jones.
While he enjoys some of the rich dishes from his childhood, he also keeps an eye on health. His recipe for Pan-Seared Salmon on a Bed of Kale and Roasted Corn is an example of using healthy ingredients to create bright, crisp flavors.
PAN-SEARED SALMON ON A BED OF KALE AND ROASTED CORN
For the kale:
3-4 slices bacon, fried and crumbled, reserve fat in pan
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 to 4 gloves fresh garlic, roughly chopped
1 shallot, diced
1 cup Pinot Grigio wine (or 1 cup chicken broth with 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
1 pound kale, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Fresh-roasted corn (see below)
4 tablespoons honey
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil and reserved bacon fat . Sauté shallots and garlic until soft. Add the wine and deglaze skillet, scraping up any bacon pieces. Add kale to the pan and mix. Reduce heat to simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until liquid is reduced and kale is tender but still bright in color.
Remove from heat, add corn and honey. Sprinkle with bacon pieces.
For the salmon:
4 8-ounce salmon fillets, skin on
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus some for cooking
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
While the kale is cooking, mix together the kosher salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano and thyme. Drizzle olive oil on both sides of salmon fillets and season both sides with seasoning blend.
Heat a large nonstick skillet on high with olive oil until pan becomes hot. Place salmon in pan skin-side down for 4-6 minutes, until skin is crispy. Carefully flip the salmon over and cook 2 to 3 minutes until it reaches desired temperature (135-140 degrees).
For well-done salmon, place in a 350-degree oven to finish.
Remove salmon from skillet and let rest.
To assemble: Place one-fourth of the kale and corn mixture on each plate. Top with salmon, flesh side up. Serves 4.
FRESH ROASTED CORN
3 ears fresh corn
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove husks and drizzle fresh corn with olive oil, season with salt and pepper as desired. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool, then remove corn from husk.
Note: You can substitute 1.5 cups frozen, fire-roasted corn, briefly sautéed in olive oil.
On the third Thursday monthly, "Top Cooks" spotlights a home-cooking whiz and one of his or her recipes. To nominate a cook, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write: Top Cooks, Philadelphia Daily News, 801 Market St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Include your name and a daytime phone number.