By Lesley Harris Colvett
Photography by Mark Ramirez
The name Erling Jensen evokes many wonderful things: decades of fine dining in our city; and a cozy, rather romantic, restaurant that we go to for memorable dinners and special occasions.
Erling Jensen the person is very warm, kind, funny, and philanthropic. It was a real treat sitting down with Erling and his wife of nine years, Jaquila.
Erling grew up in Denmark, and his culinary passion started early in life. “I started cooking at a very young age - age 15 - at a hotel in my hometown of Frederikshavn, Denmark, peeling onions and potatoes, and I went to school for four years.”
After training at a four-year culinary school and serving his apprenticeship at the Hotel Jutlandia in Frederikshavn, Denmark, Erling worked at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C. for two years, then he went back home to Denmark.
“In 1983, I took a big jump,” Erling says. That “jump” was coming to the United States, and staying. Erling’s first landing spot was Miami. When I asked Erling how he got to Miami, he said “by an airplane,” with a laugh! But he did answer. “I read an article in a Danish magazine about a Danish Chef / Restaurateur in Miami, named Jorgen Moller. I really admired him, so I wrote him a letter, we talked, and he invited me to join him in Miami as Executive Chef at the Prince Hamlet Restaurant in Miami, Florida.” In 1989, Erling moved to Memphis when he got hired by Glenn Hays who owned La Tourelle, which was located in Midtown at 2146 Monroe. Then in 1996, Erling opened Erling Jensen The Restaurant at 1044 S. Yates Road in East Memphis.
Even if you have not yet eaten at Erling Jensen the restaurant, chances are that you have enjoyed Erling’s food at a charity event where he has donated his food for guests to enjoy. “I like Memphis, Memphis has been really good to me, and I am giving back to Memphis as much as I can.” Erling says. For instance, just hours after I interviewed Erling he was doing a benefit for the James Beard Foundation. Other non-profit organizations/events he supports are Special Olympics, Madonna Learning Center, Meat Me in Memphis event put on by Monogram Foods, Le Bon Appetit, and Memphis Food & Wine Festival, to name a few. “It’s a natural evolution of things, to participate in these great events that organizations, other chefs, and people in Memphis put on,” Jaquila says. Erling and Jaquila say that the community supports them, so it is important for them to support the community.
Erling supports charity event auctions by providing gift certificates to Erling Jensen The Restaurant, and he has even offered himself at some auctions. “They auctioned off me too,” Erling says, as he has been a featured auction item to prepare a dinner for 14 in a private home. “I like those dinners, going to people’s houses and shooting from the hip, having a fun time, and raising good money for good causes.”
Erling has had tremendous success over the last 25 years as Executive Chef / Owner of Erling Jensen The Restaurant. He is living his dream. “I would say the last 10 years have been the best time for me at the restaurant, mostly because of Jaquila and my son Blake. I have everything now,” he says. Jaquila and Erling met at the restaurant. She had been in retail management in Memphis, and then did a whole career change to go to culinary school in Hyde Park, New York. One of the prerequisites of culinary school was to have at least six months of restaurant experience where they made at least 75% of the food. After graduating culinary school with a degree in baking and pastry arts, Jaquila came back to Memphis and worked at Erling Jensen’s, as one of the pastry chefs, as well as making custom cakes on the side.
Having owned a restaurant, in its original location for nearly 26 years, Erling notes the atmosphere and concept has remained the same, but it has slightly evolved over the years with the times. “We are fine dining, but gentlemen don’t necessarily have to wear a jacket. We have loosened it up a little bit, but we still strive to deliver that excellent service in an elegant setting,” Jaquila says.
“When people are coming here to celebrate it should be special,” Erling says. And when Erling serves his food at charity events it is really special too!
Erling Jensen, More than a restaurant