Jim Baker, CHGM, CS, CSW, CSS
Arizona Culinary Institute’s on campus du Jour Restaurant is already renown in the valley of the sun for its gastronomic excellence and impeccable service from the school’s next generation of outstanding chefs, but with the addition of Jim Baker, the French fine dining restaurant has decidedly raised its game.
“My mission is to train table service excellence,” notes a beautifully attired Baker. “After three weeks of training, my goal is that my students will never look at a dining room the same way again. There’s an unspoken language to the culture and chemistry of fantastic restaurants, and a definite way that things should be run and set.”
Baker began his restaurant career as a waiter at the Steak and Ale Restaurant in South Bend, Indiana, right down the road from the venerable campus of the University of Notre Dame. He quickly rose through the ranks, joining the management team, which led to opportunities with national brands Godfather’s Pizza and Denny’s. After his oldest daughter was born, however, he decided to leave the management fast-track, and returned to his roots at Tippecanoe Place Restaurant in South Bend, a lavishly appointed 19th-century manor offering traditional American dining and Sunday brunch buffet.
“I realized at that moment that I wanted to be a professional server, and that has informed my career decisions to this day,” imparts Baker.
Baker was next working at The Summit Club when is life and career would change forever with an opportunity to join the illustrious Mary Elaine’s at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, AZ, the valley’s showcase fine-dining temple.
“It was like being called up to the majors from the minor league and then, batting for the Yankees on opening day,” laughs Baker.
Baker served alongside James Beard Award-winning Chef de Cuisine Bradford Thompson, as well as Arizona Culinary Institute’s very own Chef Christopher Wolf, and the Five-Diamond Star restaurant treated every day like Super Bowl Sunday.
“One night I would be serving President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, and the next evening, it would be a guy who had saved for an entire year so he could propose to his fiancée, and the experiences there were second to none,” recalls Baker.
When the restaurant closed in 2008, Baker was called upon to run L’Ecole restaurant at Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale and was most recently at the Art Institute when Arizona Culinary Institute’s President and Cofounder, Chef Robert Wilson, called about running du Jour Restaurant.
“For me, it always comes down to friendly service – and of course, great quality food,” notes Baker.
As a Level II. Sommelier, Baker also brings outstanding wine knowledge to ACI, and he is also a Hospitality Grand Master with the Federation of Dining Room Professionals (FDRP).
“I really believe that classically trained culinarians make the best servers,” explains Baker. “You’re actually a tour guide to tastes, and flavors and the stories and language behind food and wine, and it makes for a memorable dining experience.”
With his wealth of experience and knowledge, you may think that Baker is the ultimate “food snob,” but you’d be wrong.
“Give me a good steak dinner and a nice glass of cab sav and I’m always happy,” remarks Baker.
Baker points to establishments like Durant’s in Phoenix, the upscale, old-school chophouse serving steak, seafood and martinis in its vintage, red-velvet setting as an example of the kind of great food – and great service that he continually aspires to.
“For me, sitting behind a desk 40 hours a week sounds awful,” relates a student-friendly Baker. “Give me instead a team environment where you’re telling stories about food and wine, and now you’re cooking!”
Advanced Operations Instructor, Arizona Culinary Institute