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Tuscan trained chef opens eatery on Main

A dream of 20 years came to fruition this summer when Denese Jokela, assisted by nephew Ryan Miller of Kansas, stepped into the Jack Pine Café kitchen. Customers are lauding the initiative. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Denese Jokela's passion for cooking began at a tender age, her father an ardent traveler and restaurant fancier, her mom a gourmet chef.

"And both grandmas were great cooks," Jokela said.

"I'm a huge foodie. I've always had a dream to have a restaurant," she said.

That dream sent Jokela to Italy two years ago to Toscana Soporita, where she studied cooking under renowned chef Sandra Lotti, while staying in a 15th century hilltop estate.

"It was a life changing experience," she said. "Not just the food, but the conviviality. A wonderful mix of art, music, sun and flowers. It was a renaissance. Their outlook is to make time for food."

The Tuscan certified chef returned with a conviction to follow her passion.

"Go for it!" husband Randy told her.

Denese Jokela met with Jack Pine Cafe owners Todd Olson and Dan Goleski two weeks before the bull ride this summer, she and Randy the proprietors of the event.

She opened the eatery a day after the last buckin' bull headed back in the pen.

The chef is now drawing ahhhhs at Jack Pine Café at 311 So. Main.

The produce comes from local farms, picked daily. The menu is based upon available produce. Soups, made with homemade stock, are created fresh each day. Sandy Perez shares her goat cheese.

Bread arrives from Montana; the Parmagiano Reggiano is imported from Italy. Blue cheese, aged in a cave, also arrives from foreign ports.

And the self-serve frozen yogurt bar that's replete with organic berries and nuts - pleasing the sweet tooth and nutrition conscious - hales from the East Coast.

"It's all chemical free," she said.

Many of the recipes are the product of family traditions. And noted connoisseur Amy Thielen has been invited to share advice.

Jokela's French dip is made with homemade au jus. Fresh herbs accent her potato salad. And the ooey gooey chocolate cake lives up to its name.

"Italy was life changing," she said of the using "seasonal, simple, fresh ingredients, prepared simply.

"I know about food; now I'm learning about the restaurant business," she said, grinning.

Each entrée is made to order. "This is not fast food," Jokela emphasizes. "People know when they're getting home cooking."

A children's menu, featuring local, natural honey, is available.

"This has been my dream for 20 years. I've been blown away by the appreciation," she said. "It makes me happy. It's the cherry on top of the ice cream."

Her customers agree: "It's gourmet food on diner prices," a Grand Forks "consumer" declared.

Jack Pine Café opens daily at 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday and is open for Sunday lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., with reservations due by Friday noon (237-4625).

Plans call for starting breakfast in September, "with an eye toward dinners."

The café will be open through December, with groups welcome to book holiday parties.

Meanwhile, she intends to return to Italy. "I ate my way from Rome to Tuscany." Now she plans to munch her way from Sicily to Venice.