The Making of a Chef
By Jan Walsh
J.P. Holland is a self-made chef and his own man. He learned his craft from family cook and professional chef mentors. And he refines it at his own restaurant, Fig Tree. No culinary school nor deep pocket investors were needed. He started Fig Tree with 10 plates, less than $100, and a lot of faith—and that was all he needed.
Holland’s first food memories are of a four-year-old watching his father, Jonathan Holland cooking Thai. Jonathan, grew up in Southeast Asia, and his meals would fill the house with aromas of lemongrass, ginger, and curry. “All the neighborhood kids would ride bikes over to see what he was cooking and gather around the table to taste it,” he recalls.
He also has early memories of watching his grandfather, Robert Holland, cook in traditional, French Escoffier style. “He kept caviar in the fridge, would make Beurre blanc sauces while listening to jazz, and played the piano after dinner, while drinking his Scotch.”
And J.P’s mom, Theresa Sanders, grew up mastering Southern fried.
Yet it was from his step-mother, Angela Holland and her mother, Ollie Sales, that he ultimately developed his own Southern style and flavor profile. “It was old school, cracking walnuts, shelling beans and cooking with a pressure cooker and cast-iron skillets. A meal was not ‘meat and three.’ It was three meats and eight vegetables,” he laughs. “And there were always biscuits. The kitchen worked all day with one meal rolling into another. There were eggs, homemade jellies, ham, bacon, and sausage for breakfast.” And from Angela, he learned to make mashed potatoes lumpy—the same style he makes them today at Fig Tree.
At the age of 16, Holland dropped out of high school and left home. He was on his own. He got a job at the Kennesaw, Georgia Waffle House and worked there for a few years. By the time his friends were going off to college, he was working third shift. And it was here at Waffle House that he decided cooking was his future. “I loved the fast pace orders of a Friday night at Waffle House. “The first job of the morning after a busy night was to shine all the stainless steel. I would put my dime in and play Otis Redding’s Dock Of The Bay on the Juke box, and begin to polish the stainless and chrome. There was solace in these calm and gorgeous moments” he describes. “One morning while polishing, I thought about all the people who had done this, who came before me.” At that moment he realized that he had fallen in love with the “beautiful chaos” of a restaurant kitchen and wanted to make a career of it.
So, he quit Waffle House and went across the street to Ernie’s Steakhouse where he started as a dish washer and worked his way up from there, under, Chef Carl Berg. “He would make shrimp cocktail and prime rib. And he did not like me,” Holland recalls. Yet when he realized I needed a mentor, he broadened the menu, in order to have recipes and techniques to teach me.”
Holland’s more recent history in Birmingham includes catering as well as local stints at Sakura Japanese Restaurant, The Tutwiler, and the former Yankee Pizzeria in Cahaba Heights. At Yankee he realized people could not eat pizza every night, so he developed specials of cast iron skillet ribeye, chicken fried chicken, shrimp and grits, sushi, and French roasted chicken. Here he originated some of the recipes he serves today at Fig Tree. Holland opened Fig Tree in 2014. And his wife, Tavara wept with pride when he signed the lease.
Today Holland is very involved in the breeding and genetics of the pork and beef served at Fig Tree. He raises his own heritage pork, for fat, from crossing two breeds, Red Waddle and Old Spot. The hogs are small in size and have darker, inner muscular meat. “It takes twice as long to raise and seven times as expensive to feed. Pigs are fed free range along with other foods, including peanuts and peanut butter,” he explains. The cows are a cross between Wagu and Red Angus. They are grass fed 120 days and fed Non-GMO corn and then back to grass for the last three weeks, for a flavor profile of grass fed and a fat profile of prime. This results in much ground beef and less steaks. And the farm lifestyle of the sustainable farms, where Holland sources his meats, is the same lifestyle he grew up with. “If you are hungry, they always have something to feed you,” he says.
Holland has a garden in the back of the restaurant where he is growing mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, and wax beans. He also has local farmers who source the restaurant. And his ultimate goal for Fig Tree is to grow 100 percent of his own fruits and vegetables.