James Cheskaty, 33, is the head chef and co-owner of EnVie in downtown Lansing. Cheskaty has always had an interest in cooking, and his long-term dream of owning and cooking at his own restaurant came to fruition thanks to help from his business partner, Lance Davis.
Tell us about how you became a chef.
When I was a little kid, I used to throw dinner parties for my family. I would go on the computer, make a menu, make a sign for the restaurant, come up with the whole thing, cook it all, and then have restaurant night for my family. My great aunt would share cookbooks and walk me through recipes when I was really little — that’s how we would hang out, so that’s how it started.
When I grew older, I decided to go to college, but worked in restaurants while I was doing that. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of South Florida; then I came up to Michigan.
I started working at a restaurant up here, and I really liked it. I decided to keep doing that, rather than pursuing a higher education after my bachelor’s. The rest is history; now I have this place!
So how did you come to own and run your own restaurant here at EnVie?
I was working at another restaurant, and a gentleman and his wife would come in there quite often. The wife had some dietary restraints, so I would make something for them they really liked off the menu.
He approached me and asked me why I hadn’t opened my own restaurant. I said, ‘Well, it’s sort of a mountain to climb,’ and he was like, ‘Well if I could help you out with that, would you like to do that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I started hanging out with him and brainstorming some ideas. I went to my partner, Lance Davis, who is also involved in this, and asked him how he would feel about opening up our own place. Because he’s a brilliant front of the house person, brilliant businessman and we work really well together, I thought it would be a perfect fit. We found this location and decided to give it a go. The other gentleman is very hands-off now, but he gave me the push to do it.
So we’ve been open a year. We opened June 5, 2017. It took us a year to take it from buying the building, stripping it, to opening the doors. Trying to get the liquor license, permits, all of that stuff took some time.
In terms of your role here — what all do you do?
As far as the menu goes, even with the drink menu, Lance and I are very collaborative on that, the way I do the back of the house food menu is, I’ll sit down and Adam Johns, my sous chef, we’ll talk ideas with the line cooks. If they have any good ideas, we’ll sort of have a round-table and see if those ideas reverberate with any of us. Then we’ll run them as features to see how they work with the guests, and then formulate something out of that.
But yeah, I create the menu, I designed the logo, me and Lance did all this, Lance’s partner, Jason Franks, painted all these paintings on this wall, every part of this, that painting over there is actually done by one of our servers that works here, so everything that’s in here is pretty much a thumbprint of me, Lance and the people that work here.
How would you describe your cooking style? What is your approach to that?
It’s French-inspired. We just make what we really want to eat. When we say it’s French-inspired, a lot of western cooking is French-inspired, it’s kind of the foundation of western cuisine. That being said, we do what is exciting for us. I go to the markets a lot and see what they have there. If they have something that really speaks to me, we see what we can do with it to run it as a feature. We change our menu a lot, so we don’t get board. We’re really finding our own stride now. We’re past the point of trying to fit inside of a box of what we really are — I wouldn’t consider us a straight French restaurant by any stretch of the imagination.
In terms of moving forward with EnVie, where do you see it going and how do you see it evolving?
We are doing more events now than we did at first. August 23, we have a Stags Leap wine dinner where we are doing five courses paired with five wines — all stuff that’s not on our menu, stuff that you won’t find around Lansing at all. We participated in Negroni week over the summer, we just finished our first round of Genever Wars between us, Bridge Street Social and Lily Pearls. We had our guests vote on which cocktail is the best, and we’re doing that with mezcal in the fall.
We’re trying to make more events and things that people are excited about. Just going to dinner — that’s not really what we do here. You can get food anywhere, you can get service anywhere, what we really focus on is the experience. That’s what hospitality actually is. We handle it so you don’t have to stress about it.
EnVie 210 S. Washington Sq., Lansing Monday - Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. www.envie517.com (517) 318-6135