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Toucan Café chef happiest in the soup

Photo by Richard Rodriguez
Toucan Café executive chef Jae McKenzie

By E. Russell Anderson

Jae McKenzie knew from the age of 5 that he would become a chef. His parents entertained frequently and he was always helping out in the kitchen, learning about the time and effort involved, as well as the joy and satisfaction that come from preparing and serving good food.

Years later, he attended the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 1992. He served his apprenticeship at a restaurant in Marseille, France, before moving on to the Harvard Club in New York City. He followed that with a six-year stint in New Jersey's four-star Ruga restaurant.

While searching on the Internet one day, McKenzie found an ad for an executive chef at the Toucan Café. He came to Savannah for an interview, accepted owner Steve Magulias' offer and moved to Whitemarsh Island with his wife, Charity.

His easy smile and calm demeanor belie the drive of a perfectionist. McKenzie holds himself and his assistants to the same high standard.

"I have a passion for food and for teaching other people," he said. "I have always set goals for myself and have tried to achieve them with perfection. I don't claim to know everything, but I try to learn something new every day."

He is a disciple of the French phrase mise en place, which translates into everything in its place. He believes organization and communication are the keys to running a successful food-service operation.

Though many of its recipes have a Caribbean, Southwestern or Asian flavor, McKenzie says Toucan Café's cuisine is "contemporary American."

Virtually every item on the menu is prepared by hand daily. Vegetables and garnishes are chopped daily; marinades are mixed, stocks are simmered, salmon, tuna, steaks and chicken are sliced, seasoned, weighed and wrapped.

McKenzie is not simply an overseer in the kitchen; along with selecting and preparing menu specials, he orders supplies, schedules staff, ensures quality control and trains his crew so the kitchen operation can function smoothly without him. Every crew member has a specific role, but McKenzie makes sure everyone can fill in as needed. Cross training is important. "It keeps everyone fresh and sharp," he said.

Sous-chief Mike McBride and roundsmen Tony Ellison and Shlomi Cohen are seasoned veterans of the kitchen. They are responsible for their stations on the line - Ellison mans the grill, McBride handles sauté's, sauces and vegetables, while Cohen is the expediter who keeps orders flowing - yet, each one is flexible enough to step in for the other, as necessary. McKenzie and his assistants sometimes work several days in advance, so meats can marinade to full flavor and soups are rich and aromatic.

The 28-year-old McKenzie has never doubted the career decision he made at age 5, but admits he may be overly sensitive to criticism.

"The best part of the job is when a customer says 'That was good,'" McKenzie explained. "But if 100 are happy and one complains, it kills me."

Being a chef, he advises, is not for everybody. "You've got to love it," he said.


Russ Anderson can be reached at 525-5500 or by e-mail to


Jae McKenzie's recipes

McKenzie is an executive chef who can prepare the most complex dishes. He's a big fan of soups, however, and is happy to share a few of his favorite recipes with you.

Chunky potato leek soup

1 1/2 pounds red bliss potatoes, diced
3 cups or 1 1/2 pounds leeks, all the white, plus a little of the greens
1/4 pound bacon, diced small
1 quart and 1 cup chicken veloute (make roux to thicken)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 pint heavy cream
1/4 cup honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Chicken base to taste

Render bacon in a large soup pot 5-10 minutes until crisp and brown. Drain half of the fat. Add leeks to bacon and sauté for 2 minutes. Add potatoes and sauté another 2 minutes. Add Chicken veloute, thinning with water, if desired. Cook on low heat until potatoes are tender, 30-35 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. Add Dijon mustard, heavy cream and honey. Adjust seasonings with salt & pepper. Serve immediately. Yield 6-8 servings.

Carrot-ginger soup

2 quarts carrorts, peeled and diced
2 cups onions, diced
1/2 cup fresh ginger, minced
8 cups chicken stock
2 small potatoes, peeled and diced
1 pint heavy cream
1/4 cup honey
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, sauté onions and ginger in a little oil, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and potatoes, toss thoroughly. Add chicken stock and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until carrots are tender, about one hour. Remove from heat and puree with bus stick (hand mixer) or food processor until smooth. Return to heat and add heavy cream, honey. Adjust with salt and pepper. If too thin, adjust consistency with more cream and stock. Yields 6-8 servings.


1 1/4 pounds tomatoes
4 ounces diced onion
4 ounces diced red pepper
5 ounces cucumbers, seeded and diced
1/2 ounce garlic, chopped
1/2 ounce Red wine vinegar
1/2 ounce lemon juice
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 pint tomato juice
Stock or water as needed
Salt and pepper to taste

Puree all ingredients except stock and tomato juice. Adjust flavor and consistency with stock and tomato juice.

Asian marinade

2 cups light soy sauce
1 cup sesame oil
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh ginger, minced
1/2 cup scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chili puree or chili oil
1/2 cup honey


Whisk all ingredients together and chill before using. This recipe can also be used as a dipping sauce. Yields five cups.

Marinate poultry up to 12 hours. Marinate beef or fish up to 6 hours.

Related link:
Read the Toucan cafe business profile

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