By Meda Kessler
Photos by Ralph Lauer
Whether in the kitchen or on the trail, this recently transplanted West Coast chef keeps his wheels turning to feed his soul
It’s a hot, windy weekday, but Jett Mora revels in the sunshine and breeze as he pedals along the Trinity River.
The executive chef at Café Modern is grateful to trade his chef’s whites for workout wear after a couple of extra-busy weeks that included special events at the restaurant inside the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. His little dog, Yuzu, is happy to be along for the ride. “He’s missed me, too,” says Mora. He jokingly refers to the little 8-year-old rescue dog, an anniversary gift for his wife, as their “first-born.”
Cycling has long been a passion of Mora’s as well as a way for the workaholic chef to clear his head. Among the things he misses most about his native Los Angeles are his family, the vibrant food scene and the bikes he left in storage when he moved to Fort Worth a little more than a year ago.
“Cycling is big in Los Angeles,” says Mora, who helped to promote the bike-friendly culture there. “We had big groups and organized party rides, but I also really enjoyed long rides through the city to de-stress.”
Mora admits that at 41, the decision to leave his native Los Angeles was monumental. He fell in love with Café Modern’s setting on his visit to Fort Worth. But when the day came for him to make a final decision about the job, he found his hometown tugging at him with subliminal messages he found in art and LA landmarks. “I was out on a ride and kept asking myself if this was the right thing to do,” says Mora. “And then I rode through Griffith Park and saw the statue of Gene Autry.” The Texas-born singer seemed a harbinger of things to come.
Bon Appétit Management Company had run Café Modern since the museum’s opening in 2002, hiring local chefs who made the restaurant a destination for North Texans and visitors. But the cafe closed along with the museum during the pandemic, and Bon Appétit opted not to renew its contract in early 2021.
As a vital member of the LA-based Wolfgang Puck Catering team, Mora saw the move as an intriguing opportunity to lead the company’s culinary operations at Café Modern and to live in a place partial to some of Mora’s food-and-drink favorites: Dr Pepper, chicken-fried steak and barbecue. (He also drives a Dodge pickup truck, a necessity for hauling a smoker to catering gigs during the pandemic.)
Mora’s culinary background and work ethic are grounded in his Filipino roots and blossomed on the West Coast. “My parents immigrated in the mid-’70s, settling in San Francisco, which they found too cold, and then Los Angeles.”
After moving to Southern California, his father worked in real estate and his mom was a nurse. “Dad also was an entrepreneur and very active in the Filipino-American chamber of commerce. We were very comfortable growing up. I have three brothers, and we all went to high school in Beverly Hills.”
Since Mora’s parents both worked, his Aunt Virgie helped out at home and introduced Mora to Filipino cooking, what he calls the “soul food” of Asia. “At parties, everyone brought potluck.
What better way to get to know your culture than through food.”
Mora also was drawn to LA’s street-food scene: late-night Thai food restaurants, taco trucks and Korean food stalls. “I knew the city by what food I could get on whatever street corner.”
During high school, Mora worked in various departments at a local supermarket, where he learned everything from butchering meat to customer service.
With plans to follow his father into the financial world (his dad died when Mora was only 16), Mora graduated from college with a business degree.
The economic downturn in 2008 gave him pause on his life’s choices.
“I wasn’t happy working in an office, so I stepped back to figure out what I really wanted to do.” With his mother’s blessings and support, he enrolled in culinary school and began honing all facets of culinary work. “I also cooked at a Westin hotel, where I had to be at work at 4 a.m. to set up the breakfast buffet. Every job taught me something about the kitchen environment and teamwork. Even now, if I need to wash dishes, I’ll wash dishes. It’s something I expect my staff to do, too.”
In 2011, he learned another set of skills when he joined Wolfgang Puck Catering, founded by the legendary chef known for his California-inspired cuisine. Along with celebrity weddings, corporate galas and high-wattage events — including 11 post-Academy Awards Governors Balls — Mora says some of his most memorable moments were spent in WP’s test kitchen.
“I had the opportunity to create tasting menus and experiment with recipes and concepts. We’d cook family meals for visiting chefs and work with the best and freshest ingredients,” says Mora. “It was a chef’s dream place as there were no limitations.”
He also name-checks mentors such as Wolfgang Puck chef and managing partner Matt Bencivenga, who died of cancer in 2016, for leaving a lasting impression.
And while “farm fresh” has become a restaurant buzzword, Mora says it’s a way of life at Wolfgang Puck. Intriguing vegetarian dishes had been part of the menu at Café Modern, and now Mora pushes the envelope, expanding the plant-friendly offerings to include dishes such as the Beetroot Pana Cotta, a beautifully composed salad with whipped goat cheese and a tarragon agave vinaigrette, and the Housemade Pasta Pappardelle with artichoke, snap peas, heirloom carrots, sun-dried tomato cream and Parmesan.
“I design menus around what’s in season, and it has been exciting to meet local farmers and growers here in Texas.”
Mora’s challenges, aside from making a name for himself and bringing the cafe back from the pandemic, have been dealing with industry-wide staff shortages and rising food costs. The kids in his kitchen are young, but they’re eager.
“I’m so proud of my staff as they’re continuing to learn and take risks; and that it’s OK to make mistakes,” says Mora, who encourages recipe development and experimentation.
For a recent wine dinner helping to kick off the “Women Painting Women” exhibit, he had the female chefs take the lead on a couple of courses. His sous chef, Manny Gutierrez, is an accomplished baker. Mora recalls everything he learned as a young chef in Los Angeles and wants to pass on that knowledge.
“In addition to good food, we’re creating a new culture here, too.”
Café Modern The restaurant serves lunch Tuesday-Saturday, dinner on Fridays and brunch on Sundays. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., 817-840-2157, themodern.org