Josean Jimenez started to work in the restaurant business when he was 14. Not only has he wanted to cook professionally since then; he has dreamed of his own restaurant. “To own a restaurant has always been my goal,” he explains. “I love it.”
Jimenez came from Puerto Rico to the States with his family when he was four. For Jimenez and his family, food and home carried greater meaning than something to eat at his house.
“When my family threw parties,” Jimenez says, “we gathered in the kitchen, my mother and my grandparents, to cook food for the family and for the parties. They made Puerto Rican food. My mother still cooks the same food now, the food I grew up on, like rice and roast pork and empanadas. Through food, we never forgot where we came from.”
Although the food is different—and the setting is a small, rather spare, quietly lit restaurant space in South Deerfield instead of a bustling family kitchen—that sense of place and social connectivity remains strong for Jimenez at his own restaurant, MRKT-Farm to Table. While various cuisines influence his palate, fresh, local food is the basis of what he serves at MRKT.
“From growing up, I definitely bring Spanish and Latin influences into my dishes,” he reflects, “but then I draw on French, Italian, Mexican and Japanese elements, too. I bring it all in. It’s interesting to me to cook with inspiration from so many cuisines.”
The way Jimenez gained varied experience that embraces a wide range of cuisines occurred naturally, through years logged in the kitchens of favorite Valley restaurants. His resume includes Spoleto, Tabellas, Venus and the Cellar Bar. He ran the kitchen at the Del Raye for the Spoleto Group. He moved from the Valley to work in Ken Oringer’s famed restaurants; in Boston he worked at Clio, and on Martha’s Vineyard at Toro.
Although Jimenez is only 30, his ambitions preceded even his first restaurant work experience. As if the family’s home base via food and kitchen weren’t enough, Jimenez came to appreciate his own love for cooking pretty quickly. He first realized that he cared for the culinary arts beyond the confines of home and family through the cooking instruction in middle school home economics courses.
Determined to pursue his passion, he attended Northampton’s Smith Vocational High School in order to take advantage of its culinary program. His first restaurant job—part of the school’s co-op program—was to wash dishes at Mulino’s restaurant. Fast forward some years and he was designing the restaurant’s menu.
The learning curve for restaurant ownership, Jimenez admits, is steep. “Running a business is hard,” he declares. “It’s fun; it’s what I signed up for.” Everything he knew how to do going into MRKT was kitchen-related.
“I knew how to run a kitchen, how to keep things under control, how to create a menu, how to make sure the kitchen staff understood what is necessary, and how to work with vendors,” he says. “In other restaurants, I’ve been responsible for pretty much everything that had to do with the kitchen, the labor and the food.
“A whole restaurant is so much more. There’s the book-keeping and the front of the house and marketing and out-reach. What’s most challenging is behind the scenes, not the food. The food speaks for itself.”
Jimenez does have a secret ingredient, though; he raves about the dedication and commitment of his small, highly capable staff. He chose people he’d worked with at other restaurants, including Del Raye, Spoleto and Venus and the Cellar Bar, so his team comprises people he admires and trusts. He needed only a couple of meetings with the staff to ensure that everyone learned the menu and the ropes—and then they opened the restaurant.
“When I’m cooking, I can’t be in two places at once,” Jimenez says. “More than simply host or serve, my staff really helps out, all of them. There’s a feeling that everyone pitches in and works really hard. It’s so appreciated.”
For Jimenez, the restaurant’s South Deerfield location works well. Diners come from the town itself, and from Deerfield, Conway, Amherst, Greenfield and Northampton. “It’s not a big drive from any of those surrounding towns,” he reasons. (Besides being an easy drive, it’s a pretty one.) “We also get out-of-towners,” he explains, “from the private schools, people from New York City and Boston. It’s a good mix. For what we’re doing, this is the right location.”
What he is doing is offering seasonal food that’s well pre-pared and accessible. He aspires to create an atmosphere—and food—that is casual enough to be enjoyed often. “I didn’t want to go to fine dining,” he explains. “I didn’t want anything at all stuffy. People make restaurants like that into special occasion destinations, and what I wanted was differ-ent. I wanted a place you’d feel comfortable, a place where the food feels reachable.”
To Jimenez, accessibility isn’t solely about not being stuffy, but about the chance to use fresh ingredients, not simply because local is fresh, but because reliance on what’s local and fresh offers a way to keep things dynamic in the kitchen.
“I like to cook with what’s fresh,” Jimenez explains. “South Deerfield is surrounded by a lot of farmland. I use what’s in season. My having control to keep the menu dynamic allows for seasonality in the truest sense. If asparagus is in season, use that. I’ve gotten to know farmers and they’ll call or email and suggest what they have that’s most fresh and delicious. I like the process of seeing what I can get.”
He’s happiest when a farmer tells him: “Hey, I have…” He elaborates: “I’ve done much more with vegetable dishes here than ever before; I like to show off beautiful vegetables and make them the center of the meal rather than always considering the protein as the central aspect.”
Jimenez gets chicken from farms in Vermont, and scours Massachusetts for everything from vegetables to beef, which he buys from Hadley. Eggs come from Buckland. He buys seafood through Berkshore, a fish company based in the Valley. “I go for regional fish,” he explains. He also enjoys serving “less known” cuts of meat. “Offal meat, the kidneys and marrow and liver, it’s so interesting to use,” he says.
The initial drinks list emphasized lesser-known brands, small batch spirits and liquors, and seasonal offerings. Expansion is underway, with a more playful approach to spirits. “We’ll be infusing herbs in drinks and will make syrups with local fruits,” he says. “We plan to bring the bar up to the standard of the menu.”
As a guiding principle, Jimenez cites flexibility. “I like to leave the menu pretty open,” he says. “Things like salads and soups can be easily changed.” That fluidity is influenced by ingredients, but also by his detrmination to keep the menu from growing stagnant. His aspiration is never to be bored in his own restaurant’s kitchen.
“I love cooking,” he says emphatically. “As of now, I do cook so much—six days a week—that on my days off, I like to go out to eat. I like it when someone cooks for me.”•