After spending his career cooking across the country, one chef is returning to his home in the Bootheel.
This spring, chef James Palen, along with co-owners Al Munoz and Nicole Evans, will open Fuel Bar + Taco, a bar and restaurant located in an old fueling station in Jackson, Missouri.
Palen has had a storied career across the country. He was born and raised in Cape Girardeau, where he first got in the kitchen at age 16 at his uncle's restaurant. After an apprenticeship at Chris McD's in Columbia, Missouri, he attended and graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. After graduating, he spent time cooking Latino cuisine for chef Johnny Hernandez and Creole and Cajun food for chef John Folse in Louisiana. Most recently – and perhaps most notably – Palen worked at Le Cirque inside of Las Vegas' Bellagio Hotel, a Michelin-star restaurant and one of the top 15 restaurants in the entire country.
Palen says that the plan was always for him and his family – his wife, who was his high school sweetheart, and their two young daughters – to return to the Bootheel, but COVID-19 accelerated that plan.
"We realized that we missed our families," he says. "So we decided to come home and be around family again."
Given Palen's varied background, don't expect the menu at Fuel Bar + Taco to stick to one type of cuisine.
"We're looking to bring in different flavors from basically all the places that I've experienced and had different foods," he says.
Palen recently finalized the menu, and he predicts that some of the best sellers will include birria tacos, a beef or lamb taco served with a side of consommé for submerging, and his version of a Nashville hot chicken sandwich. Palen will also use recipes that he's gotten from chefs he's befriended throughout the years, including a beef bulgogi recipe that will find its way into a taco.
"I have friends all over the United States who work in kitchens, and we all talk," he says. "I always say its like a brotherhood of fire and flame. We all know each other's struggles and what we like, and we all love to eat."
Expect Fuel Bar + Taco to open this spring, with an anticipated launch date in late March or April.
Fuel Bar + Taco, 634 W. Main St., Jackson, Missouri, facebook.com/FuelJackson