Most people starting restaurants start with a concepts. Jessica Jordan and Harold Rothman created Fishbar as they went along
The person who hired the eager teenager to work at Becker’s Bakery could not have known that he started a career trajectory that would include haute cuisine. They might have caught on to two aspects of Jessica Jordan’s personality –she was ambitious and eager to learn.
“I started out behind the counter when I was 15 making sandwiches, and got really interested in decorating cakes,” Jordan recalled. “Todd Becker, the owner, taught me and I became his head cake decorator. I started going to culinary school when I was 18, and eventually worked at Bristol Farms bakery.”
Many people happily make a living creating sculptures of buttercream and swirls of chocolate, but Jordan felt a different calling and moved to Avenue, then the most adventurous restaurant in Manhattan Beach. In 2005, owner Christian Shaffer and executive chef Darren Remy were combining things nobody in the South Bay had ever considered, like a prawn, ham hock, and sea urchin risotto. Jordan joined a wildly inventive kitchen team. Considering that era now, she could only say, “It was a different time, and the price point didn’t fit Manhattan Beach then. The area was evolving into a food scene, but it wasn’t there yet. Avenue might have made it if it had opened a few years later.”
Remy was also cooking at the North End bar in Hermosa Beach, and invited Jessica to join him. Asked if North End was at the divey end of the spectrum, she laughed, “Totally a dive. It was great, though. It was a blank canvas, and I could do whatever I wanted. People would come in expecting bar food and be blown away by a great piece of fresh California seabass, or a rack of lamb or lamb shank. That’s what we did there, under-promise and over-deliver. I loved doing that, because it brought joy and amazement to everyone eating there.”
Chef Darren left, and Jessica took over the kitchen, while also bartending and handling other duties. She continued a tradition that her predecessor started – serving the cuisine of the home team every game night during football season. Along with her habit of presenting a three-course meal every Tuesday, it was enough of a hit to make a connection that led her to greener pastures.
“One of my regulars at North End came to me and said that he had a friend who wanted to open a seafood restaurant in the old Sharkey’s in Manhattan. I was skeptical of the location, and of leaving where I was, but I met with him. He lived five houses from North End but had never been inside. He started coming in for dinner, also sending in spies, friends who would report on the food, on the girl who was simultaneously bartending, serving, hostessing, and making those menus. Eventually he scheduled a meeting. I had entertained other offers, but I had never found anyone with as much passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm as I did in Harold Rothman. We’re very similar in our thinking, and I decided I wanted to help him make his dream a reality. Some people said, good luck with that, an outsider moving in who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I look back on that now and chuckle, because it was the best move of my life.”
Most people starting restaurants start with defined concepts, but Jessica and Rothman created Fishbar as they went along. Despite the dilapidated condition of the dining room, they didn’t close for a single day, scheduling renovation in the wee hours and experimenting with food and service ideas as they went.
“We didn’t really have a concept, we just had a name and knew we were going to serve the freshest fish at a moderate price point. We didn’t know what the community would think about our ideas, so we evolved organically. Over 90 percent of the restaurant has gotten a facelift, but we’re not done. We have a groove, an identity… we’ll be done someday, but I can’t tell you when. It would have been easier to close down, create my dream kitchen and set a décor, but you make big errors that way. This way we’re able to adjust as we go. We talk to customers and ask, is that table too close? Is the room too loud? Is it too hot? We really do take those things into account.”
Thanks to high technology Jessica was even able to remain involved when a spine injury and subsequent surgery left her sidelined for five weeks.
“I was flat on my back in bed, but there were cameras in the dining room and kitchen so I could keep track of what was going on. I was watching the kitchen and writing training manuals for all the staff. The restaurant ran fine, but I changed the way I work. I’m smarter about taking care of myself.”
As if running a high-volume restaurant wasn’t enough, Jessica became involved in another venture that Harold owned – Manhattan Creamery. The ice cream shop was doing well by itself, but he wanted her involved with the incorporation of another local business.
“Harold opened Manhattan Creamery in 2008, and last November we merged with Cupcakes Couture. Harold asked me to make sure the transition went smoothly. We didn’t skip a beat. We were selling their cupcakes out of the creamery before they even closed. I worked with them and saw they had a product that they hadn’t been selling effectively. It’s our version of an ice cream sandwich. We have a bakery in Los Alamitos that bakes the cookies for us, and the quality of the cookies is the secret. They were under the radar – nobody was promoting them. I told Harold, I really think this can go places, so I got dressed up and went to Boccato’s market. They became our first customer. The ice cream sandwiches are in 52 stores now around Los Angeles, and The Mirage in Las Vegas is getting their first delivery next week. We believe it can go nationwide.”
Empire building seems to be part of Jessica’s character. Plans are already in the works for Fishbar #2, with more to follow. Asked why she wasn’t satisfied with being involved with two prosperous, local businesses, she seemed momentarily flummoxed.
“I wake up every day and try to think of ways to get business. I just have a drive to do more. I could have just stayed at Fishbar. Nobody twisted my arm to go to the creamery, and they sure didn’t ask me to start wholesaling the product.”
Asked if she thinks she’ll ever leave the culinary business, she laughed.
“This isn’t just a career for me, it’s a lifestyle. Some people don’t understand it, my boyfriend being one of them. My only hobby is eating. We went to Spain and Prague a few weeks ago, and my main agenda was where to eat. We walked by the buildings and I looked at the architecture, but I didn’t get the headphones, didn’t read the plaques. One day in Spain I stumbled on Fernan Adria’s new restaurant. I had already eaten three times that day but I begged at the door and we got in. My boyfriend really didn’t understand why it was so important, but I think he may be learning.”