CT’s Deli: The ambiance of an historic downtown bar, with the aroma of grandma’s house
By Eileen Persike
Owning a restaurant is something Chef Tom Jordens never wanted to do again. After a not-so-great experience left a bad taste in his mouth for the business aspect of food, he swore off the idea of running his own place, regardless of how much he loved cooking.
“I’ve always had a gift with food, ever since I was a kid, 8,9,10 years old– I was always cooking for my brothers and sisters,” Chef Tom said. “My parents were the typical two jobs, in the city, we lived on a farm so they were gone sunup to sundown so I cooked a lot and I always absolutely loved it.”
As a 16-year old, Jordens was making egg rolls from scratch…including the wrappers. But a career that involved cooking? Wasn’t on his plate until years later. Immediately after high school, Jordens joined the military, did a stint in Iraq and decided that wasn’t for him anymore. He took a job short order cooking and tending bar at the Thirsty Whale in Minocqua, which lead to an opportunity to work with Chef Trenton Johnson who held a bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Johnson was a new addition to the Cove restaurant at that time.
“The way we were setting food afire really lit me up,” Jordens recalled. “I called my mom two days later and said – oh my gosh you can’t believe what I am doing with food!”
That was twenty years ago, and Chef Tom has yet to be formally trained in his craft. From the Cove, he worked at Lane’s Cottage Inn, eventually leasing the business and running it alone.
“I ran it (The Cottage Inn) for two years during the beginning of the recession and I failed miserably at that, but it was a really good eye opener,” Tom recalled. “I was running the place by myself—I’m not a numbers guy, I’m a chef.”
Now Chef Tom is back in business, this time behind a deli counter, in the historic Elbo Room bar. His partner Rhonda Jicinsky is at his side taking care of the books, while Tom cooks.
Rhonda Jacinsky began her foray into restaurants twelve years ago when she ‘recareered’ by applying for the culinary arts program at Nicolet College following a sudden divorce. She knew no one in Rhinelander.
“I loved the program, graduated after two years, and got a job at Pinewood Country Club,” Rhonda recalled. “Chip showed me how to do a lot of the basics, run a credit card machine, tend bar and I also worked with Jayne in the kitchen. I never wanted to be a chef. It’s kind of funny— I have the culinary degree and I don’t know a thing about cooking; Tom has no degree but knows everything about cooking!”
With the skills learned at Pinewood, and previous management experience, she soon found herself working at Holiday Acres, where Rhonda worked in marketing for years. The pair met when Rhonda interviewed Tom to be the chef at Holiday Acres. It wasn’t long before the two were dating and before they knew it, a decade had passed.
“After ten years of working nights, weekends and holidays, I decided I just couldn’t do that anymore; too hard to find a life-work balance,” Rhonda said. “I Told Tom I needed to make a change, but he wasn’t ready and definitely did not want to own his own restaurant again.”
While they both enjoyed working there, Rhonda said the job became their lives, and it became more and more difficult to find a balance.
“I finally said, let’s feed Rhinelander during the day,” Rhonda continued. “Why do we have to be open nights and weekends? Tom was really getting into making his own brats and bacon so for awhile we visited every meat market, deli and cheese shop we could find.”
She happened upon a class on how to be an entrepreneur and learned how to write a business plan. Rhonda told Kim Zambon she would give him one more year.
And one year later, Rhonda and Chef Tom opened CT’s Deli. The couple never wanted to buy a bar, but the location was perfect with front and back parking, and the only two trees on the block shade the deli’s outdoor seating patio. The kitchen was placed up front, by the window and main entrance, so the Chef is front and center; something that took a little getting used to.
“For 20 years I was in the back. Now I’m able to greet people when they come in and greet them when they leave which is really cool,” Jordens said with a smile. “People walk in and are wowed by ambiance and then the aroma. We try to make it like you’re coming home. It smells like grandma’s house.”
While chefs don’t often like to give away their secrets, Chef Tom and Rhonda shared a couple of their favorite recipes with Star Journal readers.
“Part of what I enjoy is the homemade sides and salads,” Rhonda said. “We try to reach the vegetarians and health conscious, and this wild rice salad is one of those. If you want to make it at home, fine, if you don’t, we have it here!”
Chef Tom’s love of smoking meats is evident in the menu; again, it’s something he has been doing since he was a kid. One of his homemade smokers can be found working hard in the patio area. Another passion of the Chef’s is making soup, which was inspired by his grandfather, who traveled a lot for work.
“He told me, ‘Tommy, when you have your own place, make sure you have good soup, because I would travel out of my way to get a good bowl of soup.’ He was a soup critic all the way.”
His secret? It’s all about building flavors; start with the base and build up from there. Try the dill pickle soup, either at the deli, or make it at home – and the flavor will tell the story.
Dill Pickle Soup
¼ C corn starch
2 T whole butter
1 medium onion, diced medium
7 C chicken broth
½ C finely chopped dill pickles
2 T dill pickle juice
2 T sugar
1 t Worcestershire sauce
2 t minced garlic
4 t onion powder
1 t fresh dill weed chopped
½ t white pepper
2 bay leaves
2 C warm milk
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, medium chop
Add butter and onions to pot on medium heat. Sweat for 10 minutes, then add remaining ingredients (except the cornstarch and dill pickles). Cook soup on low heat until potatoes are tender (about 20 minutes). Then add pickles. Mix cornstarch with water until milk-like consistency in a separate bowl. Add to soup, stirring constantly, until a desired consistency is reached. Season to taste with salt/pepper. Remove bay leaf before serving.
Wild Rice Salad
1 C wild rice (3 cups cooked). Can also use a mix of brown and wild rice.
¼ C diced red onion
1 C diced celery
¼ C dried cranberries
½ C chopped water chestnuts
½ C toasted pecans, chopped
1 bunch chopped Italian Parsley
½ C balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing
1 T sugar
Cook wild rice according to package directions. Drain and cool.
Add sugar to balsamic dressing and shake to dissolve.
Stir in remaining ingredients and pour dressing over all.
Stir until well blended.
Cover, refrigerate, and serve cold. Holds well for several days.