Every once in awhile we encounter the unexpected. Chef Roderick Smith, owner of Jax Diner, fits the bill of the unexpected across the board. His low key style as he flies around the Jax Diner kitchen showcases his comfort level, but who would think that the king of comfort food hails from fine dining and is now living a diner dream? Or that the same man was the cornerstone of the food truck industry in Jacksonville before it was even legalized? Or that an old school diner would be serving locally sourced, scratch made favorites? We were so intrigued by the reviews of Jax Diner that we needed to meet the man behind the quickly growing favorite, and we found so much more of a story to tell.
Chef Roderick is a delight to listen to, as he weaves quick jokes and wit into the conversation. It’s evident he is one of the rare chefs that excels in providing for his guests inside and outside the kitchen. Even our simple question of “how did you get into cooking?” led to a smiling story. “Well, there are two stories,” Roderick explained. “One story is that my mother was a travel agent and she’d take every child and grandchild when they were ten years old on a cruise. That’s when we’d learn how to use the right silverware, eat in courses, and how we learned to eat formally. On the last day of the cruise they have this big thing at the end where they dance and have an ice carving. The chef was African American and I looked at her and said ‘I’m going to be a chef’. That’s what my mother said at least. The other story is when I was in high school, the only two things I knew how to do were run and cook. So my mom said I was going to culinary school. So I did. Then, I found out how much women love food and I stuck with it. And here I am.”
After attending high school in Jacksonville, Roderick took culinary classes on the west side. He laughingly told us that his friends made fun of him then, but now they look at him and wish they would have gone there with him. Following that, he attended culinary school at the Southeast Institute of St Augustine, now called First Coast Institute. Following culinary school, Roderick wanted to work for only the best. The best of the best was Matthew’s. “He (Matthew) was the hardest chef to work for and I always appreciate a challenge. I went there and had the snot beat out of me for awhile, and actually I still get the snot beat out of me from time to time from him and I’m 37. That was the beginning of learning the basics from a food standpoint and from a business standpoint, and how to treat your customers. Then I had to start using the gift to make myself better.”
Roderick knew he was good at talking, making people laugh, and flavor profiles. His ongoing goal was to make a dish that the customer would love and then ‘charm’ them with it, which is a remarkably perfect word to describe his entire manner. Roderick stayed at Matthew’s for three years but worked within the company for seven years. He was promoted to Sous Chef his second year. During his third year, he transferred to Medure to be the head chef and Chef De Cuisine. He helped at Ocean 60 for a few weeks, then someone suggested that he go into catering. “I catered one of my good friend’s weddings and it turned out great. The money was great and the food was great. So I saw this catering truck online. I initially wanted to just do a delivery service. I think that is still a good concept but I ain’t doing it. The type of truck that I got, because I was kind of ignorant at the time, was a coach truck. In the construction world they called it a roach coach. I needed to figure out how to make that thing presentable. I did a catering truck, I got in with a private property, and we started to roll up in San Marco. I told everyone I worked around that I wasn’t going to affect their business and I made sure it was sparkle clean. I had the starches ready to go in the hot box, people would pick out their meat, I’d cook it right in front of them, then they’d pick a side like mac and cheese or a salad. Then I decided I wanted to make it a little fancier so I started doing lamb chops. I did half lobsters. One time I did fois gras. I started burning creme brulees. I started kicking it up to another level. To be honest, it was very illegal, but people loved it so much in the neighborhood that I was protected because everyone loved it. The cops would line up 10 deep because they were so happy they got to eat something other than Waffle House. I did that for 7 or 8 years.” Owner of The Happy Grilled Cheese, Anthony Hashem, found Jax Diner on Instagram and immediately recognized Chef Roderick as “Sweet Pete, the OG food trucker in Jax. He used to serve us at Square One in San Marco late night and he served awesome scallops, lobster raviolis, and pork tenderloin. It was the bomb.” The reputation Roderick began to establish amongst the community by being face to face with the customers led to the beginnings of a brand recognition with staying power.
The food truck opened up the doors for new things for Roderick. He moved to the Bahamas to be a private chef for months at a time and cooked for friends and family over there. After beginning to burn out on that, he heard about another opportunity at Matthew’s and returned to Jacksonville to be the Executive Chef. A tempting offer led him to the Caribbean to be an Executive Chef which Roderick jumped on. It was there that he learned how to cook in volume and mastered the art of interacting with a large staff. He had ten different nationalities in his kitchen and 65 employees. It was there he met his wife, who he clearly adores. The international workers were terminated but he had an opportunity to move to the Sea Island Resort where he stayed for over three years. At that point he realized he was ready to have his own business again. He began looking for a turn key restaurant that was simple. “I couldn’t get loans, I didn’t have family that had the money. I knew once I got in a place where I could produce food everything would come together. So we’re here now (Jax Diner) and I want to do whatever I can for the community and to keep people happy. We need restaurants like this, sandwich shops or diners, to have great food too. They’re usually places where you get deli meats and frozen food. We are trying to flip flop it a little bit. If you’re a construction worker, you deserve a fresh steak sandwich too.”
Jax Diner has been open for 2 years, but Roderick has been the owner / operator since Independence Day (which he jokingly refers to in the manner of him owning his own business and the holiday). Since he took ownership, he’s rapidly pushed back against diner traditions. They source all their produce locally from Twin Bridges and supplement their fruits and vegetables from farmers markets in the area. They get local grits from Jupiter, Florida for their mouth watering shrimp and grits. They purchase their collard greens from The Boys and Girls Club to help support the community. They use real cane syrup, fresh watermelon, and fresh orange juice from South Florida. The food you’re eating at Jax Diner hasn’t strayed far from it’s origin, and that is immensely refreshing in a sea of frozen chicken strips. Roderick has surprised many with his vision, capturing it in a recent anecdote. “So, I ran out of grits. I went to Adam’s down the street. He has the same set-up as me. I offered him $5 to buy some grits. We started talking and I told him I bought Jax Diner and he said he had heard a lot about me, like that I was doing T-bone steaks and doing meat and potato nights. He also heard that we were using fresh sausage for our breakfast. He was very shocked and his face was like ‘what the eff are you doing!’ All I’m doing is just cooking and having a good time. Really, making our sausage costs nothing. We aren’t casing it, we’re making a patty. So there is no need to eat a frozen pellet. We are using Azar’s, which is local too. Wherever we can help, that’s what we do.”
The most difficult part of moving from fine dining to a diner was a surprising element. “It was hardest from a teaching standpoint to the clientele. It’s weird when someone asked you how you braise cabbage. Everywhere I’ve worked they know it’s a slow cooked, stewed cabbage. People appreciate it and love it because they appreciate good food, it’s just a different clientele. You’ve got one that makes six figures and one that makes $40-50,000 a year. This now, this is fun, it’s so much less stressful. You just have to pay attention to details, you make people happy, you make the food flavorful, you make them laugh, and you make them feel at home. Everyone feels at home here.”
The feel of Jax Diner is still residually the previous owner’s, as Roderick’s first priority was making the menu his own. He says it still looks like a sports bar, but that they’ll slowly be doing updates including changing the logo, painting, and making it feel more local and southern. He wants to showcase the great local talents that deserve recognition and has a vision for doing that very soon. This follows suit with his locally sourced foods and his focus on the Jacksonville community. Jax Diner will truly be a local spot, designed by and for our residents. Roderick’s main goal now is just to let people know that he’s there. “A lot of people pass by and it used to be Bobby’s Lunch Box a trillion years ago, so people associate it with that. We’re open breakfast and lunch and we do private catering. We can cook whatever you want. Bring your deer sausage in, we’ll cook it for you. Fishermen bring your fish in. We have the talent to do anything. A lot of people think when you’re in this environment you’re not as refined. Kevin used to be a fine dining chef as well, so we’re pretty talented, we can get you whatever you need. We have fun. It’s a unique place, and we’re here, and we’re happy. Come on in.”