If you've ever enjoyed a Gooey dessert at Dockside, the melt-in-your-mouth orange rolls at Beverly's, or one of the extravagant events put on year-round at the Coeur d'Alene Resort, you've experienced the legacy of longtime chef Rodney Walter Jessick.
Although Chef Rod, as he was known, retired in 2021 as executive chef from Hagadone Hospitality, which also owns the resort convention center, world-class golf course, numerous North Idaho restaurants and additional hotels, his impact has outlasted his 37 years in that capacity. In fact, his position has yet to be filled.
That loss was compounded by the recent announcement of Jessick's death at Spokane's Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center on Nov. 23, 2022, from complications of early onset Alzheimer's and heart failure. He was 68.
Like many chefs before him, Jessick's interest in cooking can be traced to family, and his origins in the industry traced to the dishpit. In an interview for a 2019 Idaho Senior Independent article, Jessick explained how he'd broken his mother's mixer, and got a job where she worked at the former Pagoda Café in Post Falls to pay her back.
"My mother could have been called a chef then," said Jessick, who, within a few weeks, found himself cooking during the graveyard shift.
"I learned to work hard," said Jessick, who was more interested in art than cooking as a young adult, and fondly remembers visiting the Crescent department store windows in Spokane as a youngster. Nonetheless, he traded his dreams of art college for a career that would bring him to the pinnacle of the culinary arts, including representing Idaho at the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 1999.
"Sometimes your career picks you," he said.
When Jessick learned through a friend in 1973 that the lounge at the North Shore Resort in Coeur d'Alene was hiring, he applied and got the job. He was all eyes during that year, watching and learning, but that wasn't enough. He asked if he could come in on his own to learn more involved techniques, like making roux.
Jessick's diligence paid off. When a banquet chef position opened, he got the job and worked his way up, literally and figuratively. Soon he was a chef at the former Cloud Nine, located on the seventh floor and which became famous for its broasted chicken dinner. One of his proudest moments, said Jessick, was having his mother and grandmother as guests there. Another significant moment was saving a choking restaurant guest's life, Jessick recalled.
In 1986, the North Shore closed for remodel, and Jessick accompanied Hagadone Hospitality founder Duane Hagadone on travels to reimagine dining for what would become The Coeur d'Alene: A Resort on the Lake, when it reopened in May. Together, they conceived of signature dishes like the Dockside's oversized desserts known as Gooey's, and the orange rolls at Beverly's, which would also offer a then-unprecedented four rotating menus.
Until he retired in 2021, Jessick's office was right outside Beverly's, where he sometimes slept on the floor if he needed to. The tiny space housed a massive collection of cookbooks, a round dining room table for his desk and mementos from his decades-long career, like the 2017 photo of Jessick in front of his staff when he was voted "North Idaho's Best Chef" in the Inlander's annual Best Of reader poll.
There was also framed acknowledgement of Jessick's participation in the 1999 "Taste of Idaho" event at the prestigious James Beard Foundation where he helped prepare Idaho potatoes, roasted and stacked like a tower with stuffed morels, Teton Glacier vodka crème fraîche and chive oil.
Another plaque indicated his contributions to the American Culinary Federation, which awarded him two National President's Medallions. Jessick was also a founding member of the federation's Chefs de Cuisine Chapter of the Inland Northwest, which named him "Chef of the Year" in 2001.
He had piles of photos from his international travels to Japan, China, Mexico and Taiwan on behalf of the Idaho Potato Commission, plus other events for which he was asked to cook. Once he prepared seven courses on an electric stove aboard the Resort's Mish-An-Nock cruise boat for guests from Japan, which prompted a return invitation for Jessick to travel to Japan to sample some local cuisine.
"I have been very fortunate to have eaten at some of the finest places in the world," Jessick said.
Jessick's seventh floor office had a window that looked into its kitchen. Nodding toward the people working there, he said, "I call them the heart of the place."
It wasn't just lip service, according to many longtime and former employees; Jessick created a special work environment, especially at the resort.
"He knew everyone's name," says Bill Hill, the resort's executive banquet chef, adding that Jessick had an open-door policy when it came to staff.
"And so he was like our kitchen psychologist, psychiatrist, you know, that anybody could go up there and talk to him at any time," Hill says. "He would stop everything he was doing to help people, whether it's work related for their career development, or personal stuff. He just had a personal touch with everyone."
Hill was just 20 when he first started at the resort in 1987. Within six months, Jessick took him under his wing.
"When we opened a couple restaurants, I would go there with him to do that, and then he just kind of moved me through the ranks," Hill says. "He taught me everything I know about food."
Formerly the resort's director of catering, Wendi Haught appreciated many things about working with Jessick, from how he mentored others to his insight into the whole culinary and hospitality process.
"He had an incredible attention to detail, not just what was going in the dish, but how it looked when it was being placed on the plate, and what's the attitude and the presentation style of the service team while it's being placed out," Haught says. "His expectation of precision and value for the guests' experience didn't change because of the plate price, where dinner was located or who the dinner was for. His style just transcended that."
Haught, who's since gone on to run the annual From the Ashes event in North Idaho and was recently named senior event manager for Certified Angus Beef, also admired Jessick's creativity and insight.
"His goal was always to take it to the next level, which sounds trite, after all these years of people saying that — but he just did," Haught says.
"Everything he would do, it'd be like, over the top," adds Hill, who'd respond to Jessick with, "'I think we're making this too difficult,' and he's like, 'No, we're making it better.' Like, we're making it different than everybody else."
Beverly's executive chef Jim Barrett recalls Jessick saying: "I want something, I don't know what I want, but it's just gotta have this wow factor."
And he would push his employees to do their best, says Barrett, whom Jessick hired 29 years ago as executive pastry chef.
"He was hard on us in a good way," says Barrett, who also remembers how Jessick would get 20 or so food magazines a month.
"And one of his favorite things is he would go through them and circle things and rip out pages and he would put them in our mailboxes. Just stacks of stuff that he would want us to see, want us to try, want us to put on the menu," Barrett says.
But even though Jessick had high expectations, people trusted and respected him, including Curtis Smith, who worked at Beverly's from 1988 to 1990, relocated to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and returned to the region to open the resort's Tito's Italian Grill and Wine Shop in 1993.
"What I've always said, without question, is Rod was the greatest mentor in my career," says Smith, who joined Spokane Community College's Inland Northwest Culinary Academy in 2006, where he now mentors a new generation of aspiring chefs.
Being a chef is a very demanding job and if you have to worry about your boss, that adds to the stress, Smith says, adding that "although I worked for Hagadone Hospitality, I worked for Rod Jessick."
"I trusted him," Smith says. "He set the example in so many ways but rarely taking credit for anything."
The Coeur d'Alene Resort is planning a celebration of life for Jessick on Saturday, March 25, at 1 pm. In the meantime, Jessick's nephew, Brad Fuller, has created a GoFundMe page to raise money for aspiring chefs to continue their education at culinary schools in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane. ♦