James P. (“Jamie”) Shannon was born October 31, 1961 in Sea Isle, New Jersey. He was the great-grandson of European immigrants who operated a restaurant in Philadelphia. He spent his childhood summers on their farm and developed an appreciation for food that came from the land. Local fishers taught him about preparing the catch. His first food-related jobs were in a local cafeteria, where as a teenager, he worked his way up from busboy to cook, and at a boardwalk restaurant in Wildwood, New Jersey.
By this time, he had decided to make cooking his life’s work, and received a scholarship to the CIA in Hyde Park, New York. Under the tutelage of chef Tim Ryan, he decided to specialize in American cuisine. After graduating in 1984 with Great Chef Paul Milne, his first job was in the saucier section of the Ivana Restaurant, in the Trump Towers Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey., specializing in European Nouvelle cuisine, not the American type of cooking he so loved. So Tim Ryan suggested he go to New Orleans for some first-hand experience, and contacted Ralph Brennan.
Chef Jamie went to Mr. B’s Bistro in the French Quarter, but Ralph Brennan didn’t have any openings. He did say that the Executive Chef at their sister restaurant, Emeril Lagasse at Commander’s Palace, needed someone, so Jamie went to work there. He moved up the ranks to become sous-chef, executive sous chef and, upon Lagasse’s departure in 1991, to open his first Emeril’s, Jamie Shannon, who wasn’t quite 30 yet, was named the Executive Chef.
In 1988, Great Chefs was producing one-hour television specials for PBS, and they were at Commander’s Palace taping Emeril Lagasse for theirOriginal New Orleans Jazz Brunch special. Hard as this may sound, neither Emeril nor Jamie had done much, if any television, and Jamie was always in the background and curious.
In 1992, Great Chefs Television went back to Commander’s to first tape Chef Jamie Shannon preparing a Tasso Shrimp appetizer (episode # 10) and a Creole Bouillabaisse entrée (episode # 13) for their Great Chefs, the Louisiana New Garde series to be broadcast over the Discovery Channel. In 1995, Food & Wine named Commander’s Palace the # 1 Restaurant in America. In 1996, Great Chefs went back to film Chef Jamie again for theirGreat Chefs of the South series, and he prepared a Pressed Duck entrée (episode # 23).
In 1998, Great Chefs in collaboration with Weber Grills, started a series of barbecue specials, the first one being Weber/Great Chefs Grill Out New Orleans that featured Chef Shannon preparing a Grilled Gulf Snapper and a Grilled Duck Salad. Other chefs that appeared on that special with Jamie Shannon were Great Chefs Susan Spicer, Emeril Lagasse and Michael Uddo.
In 1999, Chef Jamie was awarded the Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation and the Robb Report called him the Number 2 Chef in the World. In 2000, he co-authored a cookbook with co-owner Ti Martin called “Commander’s Kitchen” and was catching the television bug, where he starred in a Turner classic “Off the Menu at Commander’s Palace”.
But in spite of all his accomplishments, his best was doing for others what Lagasse had done for him: Teach. He streamlined a system called “extensive career ladder” that helped aspiring chefs. He was loyal, probably to a fault. In early 2001, he was not feeling well, and Great Chefs asked if he would like to do another dish for their new series Great Chefs of America. He agreed and prepared a mushroom stew (episode #125). It was the last show he would do for Great Chefs. Later in the year after a bone marrow operation, he went down to the Great Chefs Villa on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to recover with his family.
I will never forget my phone call on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when he said Ella called the night before and had suggested to him that he get back to work by the weekend, because they were going to be slammed, and he was telling me he had to catch a flight out the next morning. I asked him if he had seen the morning television news, and his response was “No, haven’t turned on the TV in two weeks.” Needless to say, after 9-11, he had to stay another week. Two months later on November 23, 2001, the world lost one of its Greatest Chefs and a great friend.
Ella Brennan said it all: “Jamie Shannon understood the restaurant business; he had magic in his hands; he loved food, wine and people, as well as his family; he had a desire for the better good of all; he was creative, a mentor, teacher and team builder, all in one, and he was the best chef I have known. I loved working with him”.
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