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Soul Man: Chef Joe Mack of Jezebel's Bayou

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Situated along the main drag of Larchmere Boulevard's antiques row, Jezebel's Bayou (12718 Larchmere Blvd., 216-721-3877, jezebelsbayou.com) attracts a fantastically eclectic crowd. Spanning many demographics, diners are tied together by one common thread: a love of the hearty, spicy, celebratory flavors of New Orleans-style cuisine. Chef Joe Mack says that when you put the kind of love into cooking that he and his team routinely do at Jezebel's, it draws all kinds of people.

"We're not a soul food restaurant," he says. "We're a restaurant that makes soulful food – and I love that. I get to put my soul into every dish I make."

Mack spent his childhood in Miami, where he picked up his love of cooking from the women in his family. He started to cook at an early age, helping his grandmother feed the other kids while his mother was at work. Originally from Georgia, Mack's grandmother taught him to cook mostly Southern food. He parlayed those skills into cooking jobs in high school, before graduating and joining the Air Force, where he stayed for six years. After returning home, he began to cook professionally. "When I came back from the service, that was a natural transition for me – to go back into something I had a passion for," he says.

Mack spent years at big chain restaurants, working his way up the kitchen ranks in places like Bennigan's, Cheesecake Factory and Bravo. In 2002, he moved to Cleveland to help open the Cheesecake Factory at Legacy Village. "My son was young when I came up here," he says. "Miami was so crowded and volatile at the time. I wanted to get away from that party life. It can be hard to focus on family when you live in South Beach!"

After the store opening in Cleveland, he spent a few more years travelling around before returning to the area to settle down. Mack then took an opportunity to depart from the corporate side of the industry, working at the now-closed Phil the Fire. Finally, he settled at Jezebel's.

"When I came over here, I absolutely loved it," he says. "It was an opportunity to be creative. With corporate restaurants you have a locked-in menu that you don't get the latitude to change. Here, we have our standard New Orleans fare, but then I really have the opportunity to create my own flavors and dishes."

That standard New Orleans-style fare includes menu staples like hearty gumbo, spicy jambalaya and rich etouffee. Dishes such as Pastalaya Fettuccine and Vegetable Ragout allow the kitchen to add their own creative twists. "We're a small kitchen so our menu is a group effort," Mack says. "Sometimes one of my guys will make something and it's phenomenal, so we'll put it on the menu. It gives everyone that opportunity to be creative and not feel that pressure of work. You want to have fun and enjoy being here. A person that loves what they do... you can see it in the presentation, you can taste it in the dishes."

After almost 30 years in the industry, Mack says Jezebel's Bayou is a place where he can settle down and continue to grow. "Working here is so much a part of me," he says. "People come in and say 'I just left New Orleans; your food is better than anything I had there.' I'm proud of that! Especially from my background. I didn't go to culinary school – I learned from experience. All that flavor creates a really unique feel. That's what I love about being here."

12718 Larchmere Blvd., 216-721-3877, jezebelsbayou.com.

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