The Chefs of Iron Fork 2014: John Perkins, Juniper

       Chef John Perkins at Juniper. | Jennifer Silverberg
       Chef John Perkins at Juniper. | Jennifer Silverberg

Iron Fork 2014 is only a few weeks away, and one of the best parts (besides all that food) is the chef competition. Four local chefs at the top of their game will cook their hearts out live, onstage, with a mystery ingredient. Only one will be declared the winner.

Last year, Ed Heath of Cleveland-Heath took top honors, and he'll be returning to defend his title. But he'll be meeting three young challengers in the ballroom at the Union Station Hotel on March 20.

Second in our series is pop-up wunderkind John Perkins of Juniper (360 North Boyle Avenue; 314-329-7696).

See also: The Chefs of Iron Fork 2014: Colleen Clawson, Standard Fare

Name: John Perkins Age: 36 Pedigree: Harvest, Acero, Niche, Veruca, Entre Restaurant: Juniper Hometown: Outside Van Buren, Missouri Nickname: None, unfortunately

"I love food and cooking, and I thought the best place to learn was someplace you could get paid to learn," Perkins tells us. "So I picked the best restaurant in town at the time [Harvest]. They hired me, and then I ended up getting fired five shifts into it."

OK, so Perkins hasn't had a traditional culinary career. Far from it. He's never had any formal training, but he says he really hasn't had informal training, either. Throughout his false starts at some of the best restaurants in town, he was also studying theology.

The Harvest fiasco was a misunderstanding -- Perkins thought he had the night off. He didn't, and when he didn't show up, he was promptly fired. "I was actually pretty devastated by that because that's just not how I operate," he says. "I didn't work another restaurant for five years because I was petrified and really upset with myself for having done that."

The tipping point came while he was out in Seattle for a job interview in 2008. He and a friend began discussing all the underground dinners and pop-ups on the West Coast, events where chefs invite strangers for dinner at their home.

"I thought, 'What the hell? I'll give it a shot and see what happens,'" Perkins says. The first mystery dinner was in August 2008. "I was not anticipating that it would be a big thing at all -- just primarily an opportunity for me to cook at my own pace -- and it took on a life of its own rather quickly. It grew from there, and five years later, I have my own restaurant."

Perkins' underground supper club, Entre, turned into pop-up restaurants that made us wish they lasted longer than a few weeks. There was Le Coq, focused on chicken; A Good Man is Hard to Find, with Southern-inspired food; and the Agrarian, with a mostly vegetarian menu. He was planning his next pop-up centered on wild game when Juniper took root.

Iron Fork is only Perkins' second cooking competition -- just a few weeks ago he lost (narrowly) to The Libertine's Josh Galliano at a pre-Mardi Gras Cajun cookoff. Perkins chalks the loss up to the tiebreakers: table decorations. He's less concerned about losing, though, and more concerned about bringing his A Game.

"I knew we were going up against Josh, but I thought if we had a good concept and executed it well, we'd be right there, and we were," he explains. "In some ways, it's more competing with myself to make sure I do exactly what it is I want to do." As far as preparation, Perkins is thinking a lot about the mystery ingredient and brainstorming creative methods.

"I love that proper balance between taking something and putting a creative twist on it and making it accessible. I think a lot of times, food can be creatively processed to the point where it's like, 'What in the world is this?'" Perkins says. "I enjoy finding that balance between making something accessible and also creative at the same time. I think that's the way our food is at Juniper, and that's what I'm going to try to do at iron fork as well."

Iron Fork is coming up on March 20 -- get your tickets here and see John Perkins in action.