‘Kitchen to me is all about family’: Maggie’s new chef talks Midwest cuisine and kitchen culture

Billy Jimenez makes pizza at Maggie’s Farm Wood-Fired Pizza, 1308 Melrose Ave, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022 in Iowa City. After using wood and charcoal, Jimenez said he’ll never buy a gas grill. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Maggie’s Farm Wood Fired Pizza has a new chef who wants to recreate the feeling of warm family get-togethers in the kitchen.

Chef Billy Jimenez said that when he was growing up in Colorado, the kitchen was always the center of their home, where his family leaned on the countertops, eating and talking. He remembered making homemade pizzas as a kid.

Jimenez lived in Minnesota for five years while completing his undergraduate degree at Saint John’s University. There, he started working for a local diner and fell in love with the work. After graduating, he moved to New York City to attend The Culinary Institute of America, and for the past 13 years, he’s worked in the greater Boston area, learning as much as he can.

But now he’s settled in Iowa to be closer to friends and family, and he’s brought his years in the kitchen and love of cooking with him. Jimenez sat down with Little Village to talk about the difference between Midwest and East Coast cuisine, and pizza in particular.

Maggie’s is owned by Jerry Zimmerman, Carolyn Brown and Roc Kemmerer. Zimmerman and Brown began selling pizzas from a wood-fired oven at the Iowa City Farmers Market in 2013, and Kemmerer joined prior to Maggie’s opening its own space in 2017.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chef Billy Jimenez at Maggie’s Farm Wood-Fired Pizza. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Why did you want to go to culinary school?

I’d always been curious about the kitchen and the restaurant. When I was in Saint John’s, I started working at a local diner of one of the graduates who owned it at the time. And I just fell in love with the workspace and realized that’s what I wanted to do.

Was there a type of food that you wanted to make?

I was never too focused on any one type. I love cooking with peppers. I did a lot of like homestyle pizzas when I was a kid. And actually when I was at Saint John’s, when I went home, people liked my pizzas a lot. So I would basically make them, freeze them and sell them. And that took care of my student credit card debt every year for four years.

What brings you to Iowa City? Was it the job, or did you move here first?

It was actually kind of a mismatch. So one of my best friends in the business, John, moved here because his wife is a researcher at the university. He introduced me to Jerry, and I talked to Jerry off and on since last April. And then when I stopped the visit, I had a chance to sit in Maggie’s experience. It was something that I felt would be a really good fit, and something I wanted to get into. I ended up moving over here because I wanted to make my way west to be closer to my family back in Colorado.

Do you like Iowa City?

I do. I haven’t had a chance to experience much of it, ’cause I moved in and just hit the ground running. But I’ve slowly started working my way around on my days off to experience and check out a few different things. It’s been nice. Very, very drastic change of pace.

You lived in Minnesota, so I guess it’s not too much of a culture shock.

No, not too much. It’s definitely remembering how to actually say “hi” to people. I took a trip coming home where I went all the way down south, hit New Orleans, came all the way up north to visit some friends in Minnesota. And it was just very interesting how the further south you went, people were cordial and actually willing to talk to you. It’s even more drastic here from Boston. People actually acknowledge you on the streets, so it’s, “Oh, I gotta remember how to talk to people.”

Do you like the job so far?

Yes, I do. It’s been a lot of fun. I was very impressed with what Jerry had so far. In our talks, they wanted to be better than what they were. And that’s something that ran with me, ’cause that’s something that I always try and do, to constantly improve and grow and develop. That’s something that I was looking for in a place. And I just wanted to kind of develop my own thing, ’cause a lot of things in Boston were, you know, too many people, too many says. It gets a little convoluted sometimes trying to just put good food on the menu. Jerry is very straightforward in the process of how he wanted to do things, and just elevate something that already had a good baseline. You know, kind of have a nurturing effect with our customers. The business for me is like, I’m bringing you into my home, and I treat you as my family. And that’s a very similar mindset to what Maggie’s has.

What do you feel you bring to the kitchen?

Well, a few things. Just the experience; that’s the big one. I’ve been working for 15 years in this industry now, and working with some phenomenal chefs in the high-end, five-star hotels. And so I got a chance to learn from different people, and I made a point to very much learn from everybody. We always have creative differences, but there was something good. And how they got to where they want to be — I wanted to learn the most of what I can out of that. The experience that Maggie’s had kind of focused on was pizza, it really delved into pizza. But expanding the rest the menu with the entrees and the pastas, broadening those horizons, a new mind, fresh ideas, is kind of the biggest thing.

Do you think there is a difference in the culinary tastes of the Midwest, and are you wanting to push people to experiment?

There is a difference. There are some people that are fully ready for it, and then there are some that you gotta ease them into it, since we don’t want to drive our customers away, we don’t want to surprise them too much. It’s a slow progression of changing things, making it, “OK, here’s something small and similar to what you had before, but it’s something new.” It’s basically building trust with your customers. They tried something different, they liked it. “OK, we’re willing to try something else that you do now.” And it’s just being honest and open, and getting their feedback.

Billy Jimenez rolls out pizza dough at Maggie’s Farm Wood-Fired Pizza on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022 in Iowa City. “It’s an art form. It’s a science,” he said. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

At this point in the interview, a customer walked in to say hello before the restaurant officially opened for the dinner rush.

That’s the other big culture shock. We have a couple regulars who will call us to let us know that they’re not coming over on Friday like they normally are. Just the familiarity they have at this place — I’ve never had that before in my life, where somebody calls me like their friend [to say], “Oh, we’re not going to be able to make it over this time.” It’s a very different dynamic here with the culture that Maggie’s has built with their customers.

That’s very sweet.

Yeah, it is. And there’s so many people that walk in all the time, just trying to stop and say hi. I’ve not experienced this in any other restaurant, at least on this level anyway.

Do you have a favorite customer?

I cannot say that, no, no. Even hinting that I would have one is the wrong way to go.

Too confidential, gotcha.

If I would say, the favorite customers are the ones that are willing to try the new stuff I’m putting out. That’s basically what always gives me my energies. When people are willing to try something that I’ve made, not because it’s something they like, but because I put the time and effort in to maybe see if they like it. And if they don’t like it, that’s fine. I don’t care if you hate it, just taste it once, one bite, just to try things. Because that’s how I approach food. I always want to try something. I’ll try anything once. Sometimes it will only be once, and I’ll never try it again, but anything will be tried once.

How would you compare the food in Iowa to the other places you’ve worked?

That’s tough because the few places I’ve been, you know, a lot of stuff is not crazily complicated, but they still put a lot of time into everything being very good. And then just the different quality of ingredients because there definitely is a good push around local community here, in the farm community. In Boston we’re a little too far removed from the farms to really get that relationship. So you have that tight-knit community of the farms. Everything you’re getting is so much closer to where you are than when I was on the East Coast.

Except seafood.

Yes, that’s the one that I honestly will sorely miss, knowing that the scallops I’m getting are no more than 24 hours old, and having all that fun stuff. But that’s the nature. I knew I was going back to the landlocked area.

How would you describe the culture in the kitchen?

It’s unique for me. We have a lot of students working. It’s different because they want to learn — ’cause they’re students, they’re learning, that’s what they’re doing right now — but the restaurant business isn’t their end game. So they will try anything, they’ll do anything. But it’s a very different approach to somebody that is, “OK, this is something I want to get into for my life. I want to get as good as I can on it on my own,” versus somebody who’s like, “OK, this is a job for me. I’m getting through the day and keeping it there.” But it’s a very good culture. Everybody does a great job. When Jerry told me they were mainly students [working] here, I was just very surprised at the quality. It’s a very tight-knit group. The plus is that they get along well. The negative is that with COVID, if one person gets sick, they all get sick. We actually have a bunch of guys that live together while they’re going to school. So this is a very good community in the kitchen. Everybody works well with each other. I mean, we butt heads, it happens all the time. But in general, it’s not anything that crazy, and actually as we’re getting stuff done, we have a lot of fun in the kitchen too.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell everyone?

The main thing is that — the same thing I tell everybody — I just want everybody to come try my food. I want to know what they think about it, know what they have, see if I can’t change some ideas on everything. And I really want to give them a chance to make this place a second home. Because kitchen to me is all about family. When I grew up, whenever it came time for parties, we’re in the kitchen. We’re sitting there, leaning against the counters. And that’s where we’re drinking and talking. Every Christmas, that’s where we’re at the whole time. And I want people to come in and have that feeling here. That’s the kind of culture I want to continue here, because Jerry already very much has that built. I want to be a part of that culture, and ask them to come my kitchen and take a load off.

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