We all chart a path; Jason Hicks’ runs from Cotswold lanes to Midtown mêlée, with continents for side trips. It’s taken decades, but this English country boy, raised on farm and field, has found a home in New York suburbs and purpose in New York restaurants.
It’s not been easy. There was childhood angst of divorce, moves, and delinquency, the obsession to fit in. “My mum remarried and we moved to Birmingham. That’s where I went off the rails. I wasn’t trendy and the guys teased me. They had better bikes and designer clothes. I was a bit of a country bumpkin.” Bumpkin, maybe; victim, no. They had swagger, but he had spunk—and the nascent resilience that would come to serve him well. “I was always good at making friends, and when you’re in that environment, you start to prove yourself.” And he did, but to an extreme, pulling pranks and getting kicked out of school at 15. At 15? “You were trouble!” I splutter. “Yeah, but cute trouble,” he’s quick to correct. “I just did innocent, stupid things like knocking on teachers’ doors and running away, or going into peoples’ orchards to nick their apples.”
Trouble, okay, but responsible, too. If he couldn’t go to school, he’d go to work. Years before, he’d spent hours visiting with his grandfather in his garden. “We’d come back with bags of lima beans or sweet peas or Brussels sprouts—back then, I’d never eat Brussels sprouts unless they were my grandfather’s. It’s a family joke to this day. That’s where the seed was planted to become a chef.” He took work as a farmhand, driving tractors and baling hay, but had grander dreams. “I’d always loved cooking; at school in Home Ec, everything I made was always good. I made the best cakes.”
Hicks outside his home—a bamboo/grass hut—in Pai, Thailand, 22 years ago
He took a part-time job as a dishwasher and floor-mopper at a local grill, and the seed blossomed. “The chefs were crazy and I enjoyed the energy in the kitchen.” Soon, it was off to a steakhouse as a prep cook, and then cooking school. “I absolutely loved it,” he recalls. “It was brilliant—boning out pieces of meat, making soufflés. I was good at it, just like in Home Ec.” Great, except he’d neglected to tell them he hadn’t graduated high school. He would be allowed to stay only if he passed his upcoming exams. He did, with “distinctions across the board. And the rest is history.” Soon, there were hotel restaurant jobs (“they liked me but gave me a hard time because I was this cocky kid”), banquet jobs, work in London, part-time in a Cotswold Michelin-starred kitchen, then borrowing money to open his own place in a pub’s spare room. He was 19.
And then the world beckoned. First New Zealand, then Australia, cooking at a gold mine, on an oil rig, at a ski resort. There was Aboriginal Bush cooking in the Daintree rainforest, and later, curries cooked over fire in Thai village huts. There was backpacking through Malaysia, Singapore, and China. Ready to return home, connecting for London at JFK, he phoned a New York-based pastry-chef friend, made a visit, and never left.
He spent 10 years at the Manhattan bistro La Goulue, plus stints at Orsay, Aureole, and in Connecticut. He married a New Yorker, had three children, and then the bumpkin returned to the spiritual country in the form of Jones Wood Foundry, the Upper East Side pub he built and opened in 2009. And, just this past December, his British cuisine colonized the Grand Central neighborhood with two restaurants in the regally intimate The William Hotel: the Foundry clone The Shakespeare; and the refined, clubby multi-parlor The Peacock, with its melding of British classics and American modernity. “I remember my mum taking me to a club in the countryside for Sunday lunch, and these are the kinds of rooms that were there,” he says. “It’s nostalgic.” Nestled on a sofa in this paneled Peacock salon, he’s clearly home.