Jagz chef fine-tunes menu to Flathead’s palate

January 15, 2019

More than 40 years of working in professional kitchens have taught Jeff Gregoire, chef and owner of Jagz restaurant near Kalispell, a few things about what people want from a gourmet meal.

The No. 1 thing, he said, is consistency.

Since Gregoire, 58, and his wife, Amy, opened Jagz 13 years ago, and they’ve kept their menu pretty much the same, adding a few new items along the way.

That does not mean, however, they’ve stuck to a humdrum list of everyday entrées.

Gregoire’s dinner menu boasts over 65 different items, not including wines and specials.

The extensive selection is derived from the various restaurants for which Gregoire has cooked since he first started his culinary career in Seattle at the age of 16.

“I just started as a dishwasher like a lot of people do, and worked my way through the kitchens in Washington and learned,” he said.

The teenage dishwasher stuck with the job, slowly moving his way up and into kitchens in every type of restaurant imaginable, from seafood to steak houses to Italian.

Over the years, he said, he’s come to enjoy almost every aspect of the kitchen, but it all comes down to making good food for good people.

Upon moving to the Kalispell around 30 years ago in search of a better environment in which to raise his kids, Gregoire said he found himself serving a different type of people than those he encountered in the big city.

“People here are a little more down to earth,” he said. “I kind of had to learn what they liked here.”

Following his first venture with a restaurant called Black Angus, Gregoire and his wife bought their current building and named it Jagz, which stands for Jeff and Amy Gregoire, with a “Z” added to the end.

There, Gregoire began serving up local favorites like prime rib, pastas and some seafood. His fine-dining experience in Seattle, however, had earned him knowledge and skills with foods that had yet to find their way into the hearts and stomachs of Kalispell.

Back then, Gregoire said, people ate two main types of fish-frozen salmon and halibut.

In those days, he said, places like Montana still had limited access to the fresh, non-native fish he’d worked with on the coast.

He was determined to bring some big city flavor and delicacies to his new community, however, and over time, he said, people began to get braver about what they selected from his menu.

“It’s evolved as more people have moved in here,” he said of the Flathead. “I think people have evolved as well as far as what they like to eat and try now.”

More modern methods of shipment also meant that access to fresh fish straight from Hawaii made their way into his kitchen multiple times a week, providing uncommon variety for the experimental eaters of Kalispell.

“It’s just interesting to be part of the community here,” he said. “We really like it.”

Serving such high-quality food made fresh daily, however, requires a lot of work.

Though Jagz does not open for dinner until 4:30 p.m., Gregoire often gets to the restaurant to begin prep work by 10 a.m.

“What people don’t understand about this kind of cooking is that it’s not like fast food,” he said. “We don’t take it out of a box. You have to prepare everything from scratch, so it’s hours of labor.”

A fine-dining experience like the one Gregoire strives for at Jagz does not come from food alone, however.

At the front of the house, his wife, Amy, manages the staff and service aspects of the business, areas in which he said consistency is equally important.

One of the ways both he and his wife achieve such consistency is with their staff, both in front of house and back.

After starting as a busgirl at 15 years old around the time the couple opened the restaurant, one of the Gregoires’ employees worked her way up to a management position and continues to work for them today.

Some of the cooks preparing food beside Gregoire in the kitchen he hired as dishwashers and gradually trained and promoted.

“Help is obviously hard to come by, but the loyal ones have stuck with us and that’s huge,” Gregoire said.

The quality, cooking and service may be “all about consistency,” but Gregoire said that a good chef never stops looking for ways to improve.

“You have to be learning,” he said. “If you think you know it all, you’re not doing too well.”

Each time he and his wife travel out of town or discover a new favorite at another restaurant, he said he’s apt to bring it back to his own kitchen and give it his own spin.

Whether they return for the same items or to try something new each time, customers should be able to find whatever their taste buds are craving somewhere on the menu, Gregoire said.

Despite his repertoire of high-end recipes and dishes he found in Seattle, Gregoire said his goal now is to focus on local tastes to keep his community happy.

Pictures of friends gained over the last 20 years spread across the walls of the restaurant’s front room. Those faces, for Gregoire, represent his overall mission for Jagz.

“It’s all about the locals with us,” he said. “The tourists are great and they spark your income in the summer, but without the locals, forget about it.”

“That’s who we cater to, and the rest of it’s just kind of gravy,” he added.

For more information or to make a reservation, visit https://www.jagzrestaurant.com/.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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