Another New Year’s, another time for resolutions and new beginnings.
That’s probably the best thing about New Year’s. The hangovers will ease, we’ll vow to do some things better in the year ahead, and occasionally we’ll even succeed.
Jerry Jones knows all about fresh starts.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he used to run the State Court Cafe, a Boise icon.
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Both State Court Cafes, actually.
The original State Court was across West State Street from Lowell School. It was a North Boise institution, one of those homey little places that served plain but good food with zero pretense. Its proprietor for many years was a woman known to all simply as “Mom.” She was locally famous for her animal-shaped pancakes, often prepared with a child sitting on her knee. She was also known for shoving plates of food at customers who hadn’t ordered them.
“I know you didn’t order it, but I need a guinea pig,” she would say. “Tell me if it’s any good or not.”
Jones, 58, went to work as a cook there in 2001. “Mom” was gone by then and the business had changed hands several times. Jones took it over after working there a year. He ran the cafe until 2006, when the building was sold and demolished. The North End lost the State Court; Jones lost his gig and had to start over.
Cooking is his passion — he’d previously worked at the Gamekeeper, the Arid Club and other upscale establishments — but no cooking jobs were available so he started over by doing something totally different.
“I went to work for my brother doing commercial painting. I did that for two years, until 2008.”
That was the year the former Elmer’s Restaurant building on Fairview Avenue went on the market. Jones’ father leased it, and Jones traded his paintbrush for a chef’s hat.
“We took down the Elmer’s sign and put up the Jerry’s sign overnight,” he said.
He operated Jerry’s State Court Cafe until 2014, when his father gave up the lease.
“Dad was the bookkeeper and the real-estate partner. For what he was getting out of it, it was just too much work for him at his age.”
Once again, Jones had to start over. This time he went to work for Chef Shamy, a company that makes gourmet butter. If you’re a Costco member, you may have seen him demonstrating the stuff at Costco’s stores in Boise and Nampa.
“I was their number one salesman,” he said.
Until Costco stopped having Chef Shamy demonstrations. Once again, he was in need of a job.
“I always wanted to cook for the elderly. So I applied at some senior-living places. I put in for unemployment, but I hadn’t even gotten my first check yet when this place called.”
“This place” was Plantation Place, an assisted-living facility in West Boise. Jones has been working there for five months. That might sound like a step down from cooking at a big restaurant with your name on the sign, but for him it was a victory over a troubled past.
“I was a drug addict for 30 years,” he said. “I went to prison several times.”
One of a small percentage who beat the odds against overcoming addiction, he completed a treatment program and has been clean since 1999.
Prospective employers, however, have a way of not seeing beyond the record.
“He’d always wanted to work in retirement and assisted-living communities, but no one would hire him because of his past,” Mary Ann Murdoch said. “The Edgewood Corp. believed in him, forgave him and gave him a chance.”
Murdoch is regional community relations director for Edgewood, the company that owns Plantation Place. As Plantation’s co-founder and longtime owner — she and her husband sold it to Edgewood four years ago — she takes what happens there seriously. And it’s an understatement to say she’s impressed with its new chef:
“My husband and I operated Plantation Place for 16 years. We treated it as our family, our home, our responsibility. It reflects who you are, your integrity and your purpose. His first couple of weeks, I noticed that same integrity in Jerry. He took pride in the restaurant and staff, and customers were number one with him. … He is an amazing, devoted, talented, humble, culinary genius.”
Jones started out as a part-time cook at Plantation Place. Three months later, he was promoted to its director of dining services. I interviewed him over the same lunch the residents had and was surprised at how good it was.
“When I got here, everything was frozen, there were no fresh vegetables, and they were cooking everything to death,” he said. “I make everything from scratch every day.”
“It’s an overall improvement from what we had before,” Plantation Place resident Doris Noaker said. “We get fresh vegetables, fresh salads, better meat, better fish. Jerry cares about what people want. He’s always asking how we like his cooking, and if you want a little something extra, he’ll get it.”
“Everything is based on health and good nutrition,” Jones added. “Who needs good, healthy food more than the elderly?”
His interests aren’t limited to the kitchen. He chats up the residents, takes them on walks and has volunteered on his days off to take them to the zoo and on other outings.
His fresh start is paying rewards that can’t be measured in a paycheck.
“I made more money selling butter,” he said. “But I like this better.”
His advice for others facing hard times and challenged with starting over:
“Pull up your bootstraps, rub some dirt in your wounds and get on with it. You’re the creator of your own destiny.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.