by Lou Mancinelli
When baking dog biscuits, be sure to use collie flour.
Always remember to placate any fresh sprig that you see. That is a sound policy of appease-mint.
Through the years Valerie Jamison, 62, has worked at many Philadelphia restaurants, like the classic French Les Amis and Mezzanotte in the 1970s. She worked her way up to executive chef at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she was in charge of preparing meals for up to 1,500 people a day.
She was a teacher at Drexel University, a personal chef for Main Line high society types, a restaurant/catering chef in New Hope and Chicago and with a local family bakery/café. But Val now creates a wide variety of dishes that fill the Weavers Way Chestnut Hill buffet-style spread (in the rear of the store) with aromas that tempt even non-foodies.
“Cooking was always in my blood because my mother entertained a lot,” said Jamison, a six-year Chestnut Hill resident with a bubbly personality and head chef at Weavers Way Chestnut Hill, during a recent interview.
To Jamison, who was raised in Mt. Airy, cooking is a fine art that encompasses all art forms. “First of all,” she said, “it’s visual. When you create a dish, it has to look good … That’s painting … Music? There’s a rhythm in the kitchen you have to keep going. Literature? You have to write a beautiful menu … It has to look and sound good.”
After graduating from Lankenau School for Girls in 1969, Jamison began taking classes at Moore College of Art & Design. Soon she transferred to Cheyney University in Chester County. Around that time, her father (a surgeon) took ill, and this, among other issues, contributed to her leaving school.
Jamison landed on Main Street in New Hope working on the line in the kitchen at John & Peter’s. While she worked, she modeled and studied in Bucks County with famed artist Nelson Shanks, and in Princeton with Joe Brown, a sculptor who created the bronze busts of Benjamin Franklin The Craftsman in Center City, and Play at Second Base at Citizens Bank Park.
“People would say to me, ‘You know, if you really want to learn the basics of cooking, try to get into a French restaurant.’”
So in the mid-’70s she moved into the city. “It was the start of the Restaurant Renaissance,” she said. One day she went to Les Amis and told the manager she wanted to learn to cook. She was hired on the spot and learned to make the “five mother sauces” and as many as 20 other sauces.
After Les Amis, Jamison worked as a personal chef for Cathy and Martin Fields, then-owners of the Valley Forge Hilton, for one year. Then she went to Chicago for two years and worked in catering. “I was gonna get married,” she said.
But she didn’t. So it was back to Philly in the early ’80s, where she became pastry chef at The Hershey Philadelphia Hotel, then at Broad and Locust. When her brother, Butch, also a chef, opened a bakery in Center City with his wife a few years later, Val joined them.
If you’ve even seen a spread of food in a glossy magazine, then you’ve seen the work of a food stylist. After the bakery Jamison cooked food for photos in Philadelphia Magazine, like the birthday cake on the cover of its 80th anniversary issue. Next she was executive chef at the Philadelphia Art Museum, where she ran the cafeteria, banquets and Water Works restaurant.
To Jamison, the key to a successful kitchen is having cooks who know what they are doing, who are excited and want to learn. “You’re only as good as your crew,” she said.
After a few years at the Art Museum, she took a job teaching cooking to young adults coming off welfare. She later taught at Drexel and elsewhere, and still teaches a little today. “Everyone wants to be a chef,” she said. “Everybody wants to work at the high-end celebrity chef’s restaurant … I don’t think I could last an hour on the line now.”
In 2010, when Weavers Way Chestnut Hill opened, Jamison was on board as head chef. She describes her style as classical mixed with contemporary techniques and ingredients. At Weavers Way, Jamison has a good deal of freedom. One of her biggest challenges is coming up with vegan dishes that people who aren’t vegans would enjoy.
“I’d probably like to retire in about two years,” she said, “but I do like it here. It’s a lot less stressful here at Weavers Way than at many of the other jobs I have had.”