Jack Raben (right) has a culinary split personality of the best kind: He’s equally at home in a restaurant kitchen or supervising catering events of all sizes. The toques he wears include executive chef at the Fogg Café in Naples Botanical Garden and executive chef at Lurcat Catering, a division of D’Amico Catering that operates the Fogg Café. Lurcat Catering, which is the exclusive caterer of Naples Botanical Garden, also offers catering services for a wide array of private events for the general public.
“My goal is to deliver restaurant-quality food in a catering setting,” Raben says. “I want to go outside the norm, and create something that didn’t exist previously.” After studying at the Art Institutes of Arizona and Minnesota, he worked under the legendary Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Minneapolis before coming to Naples.
First cooking job: I started in junior high school at a horse track with a huge kitchen. They had a full-service banquet facility as well as a restaurant, so I was trained in both.
Mussels, smoked mayonnaise, nori, pickled Fresno pepper
Greatest influence: Working with Jean-Georges exposed me to technique, balance and execution at the highest level. It was like boot camp, but he was a great guy. We worked hard, but he’d go out to a bar with us afterwards.
Most spectacular catering event: Before I left Minneapolis I helped prepare dinner for 5,000 people the night before the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. We had 18 trucks and a dozen food outlets, and served dishes in a range of different styles.
What makes Fogg Café unique: We use ingredients from the garden itself, so we have a range of aromatics, chilies and fruits that change with the seasons. It is all woven into dishes that encompass Asian, Caribbean, Floridian and Brazilian influences.
Mojito cube with kaffir powder and mint
Dishes he is most proud of: I put a banh mi on the lunch menu, which is a Vietnamese sandwich with BBQ short ribs and pickled vegetables. On the catering side, we have an unusual take on surf and turf: We combine a filet with lobster risotto flavored with smoked chili oil.
Pet peeve: People who don’t have the passion to be in the kitchen; someone who thinks it’s just a job and doesn’t understand or respect the quality of the ingredients they’re working with.
Most unusual item in his home fridge: Headcheese, definitely. We always have a lot of fun stuff: Spanish chorizo, Camembert and lots of field greens.
Citrus-cured arctic char, Florida orange, pickled Fresno pepper, fried lotus root
Most memorable meal: I was in New York last year and went to the Momofuku Noodle Bar. The dinner was amazing, but what really impressed me was the atmosphere, the fact that you could have that quality of food in such a relaxed setting.
I’d most like to cook for: Any or all of the chefs I worked under for 16 years, just to demonstrate how much I actually learned from them.