Many of us never realize our dream job in one lifetime, but JT Walker has been lucky enough to land two—chef and zookeeper. Yes, you read that right: JT worked as a zookeeper for five-plus years, first in Cincinnati and then at the Santa Ana Zoo (where he met his wife).
JT got an early start in the kitchen, having grown up in a family of passionate chefs, although he claims to be the only one “crazy enough to do it for a living.” He explains, “I started cooking by myself in 5th grade, making dinners. I told my parents I wanted to be a chef, and they said, ‘Great… now you’re in charge of dinner.’”
He calls his family and friends his greatest influences. He’s sought pickle and relish advice from his mother, his father makes sausages and smokes his own meats, and his great-grandmother has passed along her pie dough secrets (which he admits he still needs to work on).
Several summers ago JT worked in Alaska, cooking at a fly-in-only lodge along the Iditarod Trail, about an hour’s flight north of Anchorage. “It was a great experience, cooking for guests on riverbanks or near glaciers after doing helicopter tours,” he explains. “Due to weather, we had to plan at least a day buffer with our menu planning since we had to fly in groceries…As someone who fishes regularly, it was very cool to fish streams where only a handful of people have ever been.”
So what does JT prefer to concoct back on his beachy home turf? Due to an upbringing in SoCal around a Filipino grandfather, he leans toward “Pacific coastal cuisine…lighter sauces and Mexican chiles, but used in an Asian style. Spice you feel after a few bites, not something that slaps you across the face.”
He balances spicy, salty, sweet and bitter flavors, while experimenting with lighter techniques that incorporate limited amounts of butter and cream. To support the local community, JT and his Zimzala team also maximize the use of locally-sourced produce and seafood.
“We focus on seasonality,” JT replies. “Trying to use produce items at their peak [and those] that fit the local beach-and-surf culture. Food that’s a little more fun, like our Pickle-Brined Fried Chicken Sandwich with house kimchi and peanut maple syrup.”
Ever the humble chef, JT admits that he never feels as though he’s truly “mastered” a dish. “I’m always trying to find the ‘perfect’ version,” he says. He often lets his creative juices flow to music; his playlists include artists from Jake Owen to O.A.R. to FloRida. “My kitchens are classrooms,” he adds, “we’re all teaching and learning. As long as everyone fits in the kitchen, I am always open to having friends and family [join] me when I’m cooking.”
JT’s breakfast of champions involves four cups of black coffee and an apple. When asked about a favorite go-to meal, JT divulges: “Most people think chefs eat well, but the majority of us don’t. By the time we get home, we don’t want to do much…My wife takes care of me and always makes sure we have a loaf of white bread, creamy peanut butter, a jar of jam from my mom and local IPA in our fridge.”
No matter what JT’s eating at home, his grateful diners appreciate his passion for ensuring that we remain blissfully well-fed. For a taste from his kitchen, try this Misoyaki Marinated NY Steak recipe:
Misoyaki Marinated New York Steak
Serves 3-4 people
Ingredients for the Misoyaki Marinade:
- 1 cup white miso paste
- 1 cup red ale (JT prefers San Diego’s Karl Strauss Red Trolley)
- 2 cups sugar
- 3-4 New York steaks
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4-6 green onions, with only the roots trimmed off
- To make the marinade: mix the miso, ale and sugar thoroughly. Reserve ½ cup.
- Add the NY steaks to rest of misoyaki mixture and marinate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
These steaks taste best when cooked on a grill.
- Remove the steaks from the marinade and season with freshly ground black pepper. Place on pre-heated grill.
- While the steaks are grilling, bring reserved marinade to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
- Grill the steaks to desired doneness.
- Once the steaks are cooked, grill the green onions until cooked through.
- Serve the steaks with the misoyaki sauce and grilled green onions. These steaks pair well with steamed rice and sautéed edamame.
Bonus tip: Drink a hoppy IPA or spicy Malbec to help balance the sweetness of the misoyaki sauce.