Jason Heald grew up on a skateboard, and while listening – unsurprisingly – to punk music, he practiced graffiti art, and dreamed of being the next Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson.
“I was a poet, writer and rapper,” Heald says. “I wanted to make a mark on the world.”
He had a son when he was very young, so he decided to parlay his experience in kitchens into a full-time gig. Working in the industry was a good way to make money to pay for his new responsibilities, but he also was learning to love the “poetry” of a back-of-house team.
“I started working in kitchens when I was about 15,” he remembers. “I loved the camaraderie and the feeling of being part of a family. It made me want to be a chef.”
Heald, who is now executive chef at Rococo on Penn, grew up in the Mid-Del area of Oklahoma City, where he learned to cook from his paternal grandmother.
“She was the original farm-to-table chef in my life,” he says. “We ate a lot of Southern staples: fried chicken, collards, ham hock and beans, tomatoes and macaroni – that sort of thing. I always looked forward to Sunday dinner; it was usually brisket, baked beans and rotating sides. My grandmother was definitely my hero growing up, and she always made real fried pies for me when I cooked with her. But I started working in kitchens because I wanted a car.”
He applied to Garfield’s in Crossroads Mall and worked as a host, dishwasher and busboy to pay for his wheels – but he never stopped working in kitchens, and except for time spent in Phoenix and Colorado, most of his culinary training has been in OKC restaurants.
“I love to cook, and I especially love cooking for my friends and family,” Heald says. “I’ve cooked enough different styles that I can pretty much make them whatever they want at this point.”
Rococo owner Bruce Rinehart has turned Heald loose in the kitchen, and given the diversity of Rococo’s menu, he’s an excellent choice. Heald also has been able to indulge his creative side with features that aren’t on the regular menu. For someone whose formal training was always in kitchens, it makes sense that he would continue to develop his skills there. Working for what he wants has always been his model.
For his recipe, Heald chose creamy herb and goat cheese polenta. “It’s very warm and comforting on cold winter nights,” he says. “It’s also really easy to prepare.”
► How It's Done
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup polenta or coarse corn meal
8 oz goat cheese
2 sprigs thyme, chopped fine
4 sage leaves, chopped fine
Bring chicken stock to a boil.
Slowly stir in corn meal.
Lower heat and continue stirring for 7-10 minutes until smooth.
Remove from heat.
Fold in goat cheese and chopped herbs.
Top with melted or browned butter.
Serve with braised meats or ratatouille, or enjoy it by itself.