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Blaze ends Cooking with Jazz for Queens chef

Chef Steve holds up a bottle of shrimp and crab boil used in one of his recipes at Cooking with Jazz, which is slated to close later this month. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

A unique eatery pairing music and food will play its last chord and boil its last crawfish April 22 after the owner decided the stress was not worth the cost.

Cooking with Jazz, at 179-22 Union Tnpk. in Jamaica Estates, hit the skids last year after a fire forced its doors to close for eight months. Now the chef/owner finds running the restaurant too much of a pressure cooker.

“I’ve had enough. I just can’t take it anymore,” said Chef Steve, who chose not to give his full name. “Every six months I need cortisone shots in my back. Bags of potatoes are 50 pounds, onions are 50 pounds. Everything is 50, 75, 100 pounds. That and the stress, it’s just too much.”

Chef Steve, 53, began his cooking career at age 15. Having not attended culinary school, he learned in front of ovens and fryers in New Orleans restaurants during the 1980s. He came back to his home in Queens and opened Cooking with Jazz’s first incarnation in Whitestone.

He moved his restaurant to Jamaica Estates in 2009 and, by all accounts, business was booming.

“Those first six months or so we were banging. You couldn’t get a seat,” said Steve. “Then the fire happened.”

The fire was caused by 80-year-old wiring in the ceiling of the back dining area and it changed everything. The restaurant had to be gutted and, although insurance paid for the repairs, the restaurant never fully recovered and the process to reopen left Steve with little confidence in the food service industry.

“My restaurant was closed for eight months because of my landlord’s inept contractor,” he said. “That’s a nice way of saying it.”

According to Chef Steve, his landlord did not file for a building permit to reconstruct the charred eatery for three months. The landlord of the building could not be reached for comment.

Steve’s sous-chef, Dave Lavoie, said the delay in rebuilding put further financial stress on the owner and his restaurant.

“It’s a tough job and that fire made it all the more tougher,” said Lavoie, who has worked at Cooking with Jazz for eight months. “Steve made the decision to close. It might be a rash decision because that’s the way he is.”

Chef Steve notified his customers of the pending shutdown via e-mail and Facebook. Many were shocked when they heard, taking to the social networking site to plead with Steve to reconsider.

“Where else can I get great buttermilk chicken and be able to stumble on home?” asked a distraught Lora Panossian.

Ingredients in Steve’s dishes are rising in cost and have made it difficult for the restaurant to remain financially viable. Steve said before the fire pecans were $4 a pound; today the pieces are priced at $8.60 a pound. Catfish, a staple in Cajun cuisine, more than doubled in price — up from $3 to $7, according to Steve.

Even with the financial and emotional stress, Steve wants to remain in the food industry, cooking to earn his pay. Although he probably will not try to open another restaurant, preparing food is what Steve knows best — and another job in the industry is the only possibility that makes sense to him.

Cooking with Jazz will serve its last meal April 22, with the usual musical accompaniment. Chef Steve said customers should not expect a special close-out show leading up to the final night.

“Every night is a close-out show,” he said. “It’s business as usual at the restaurant. We’re professionals.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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