In a region where Michelin stars are scarce, chef Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern and Noodlecat has a stature among chefs that’s almost LeBron James-like. The north-east Ohio native took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef-Great Lakes this year, becoming the first non-Chicago winner since Alex Young in 2011 and the first Ohio-based victor since Michael Symon in 2007.
“I think for us it’s nice to set goals, and then when you achieve them to just sort of forget about them and move on to the next one. And that way you don’t champion your victories too much,” says Sawyer.
Along with a few others in his field, Sawyer is leading the charge on changing Ohio’s culinary reputation from a national punchline into a dining destination. Instead of remaining in New York like most chefs—where he cut his teeth after graduating from culinary school—Sawyer returned home, drawn by the immense potential of his birthplace. It’s a trend that’s been playing out much more in recent years, and one that he thinks will stick.
We caught up with Sawyer to talk about the implications of Cleveland-style BBQ (“we’ve go the best pork”), the impact of Midwestern food personalities like Andrew Zimmern and Michael Symon, why the Southern heritage food receives too much credit, and why success is no longer anchored to culinary hot spots like San Francisco and Chicago.
— jonathon sawyer (@chefsawyer) May 5, 2015
On the national media finally paying attention to Cleveland.
I think that we get too much media attention now, you know what I mean? [Laughs]. No, I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much attention, and I don’t think there’s a saturation point of restaurants—at least for independent owner-operated restaurants. I think that’s a very Symon point of view that I love: There is no such thing as too many restaurants on one street if they’re owner-operated. You know, at the end of the day, what percentage of the overall, dining-out population are we talking about? Fifteen percent? So it’s still 85 percent of the country that needs to get off of the major chains and get into the places run by Symon and Zimmern.
On recognizing the roots of Midwestern cooking.
It’s interesting how much attention is drawn to the heritage of Southern cuisine and Southern food, yet never drawn to European, Middle-American—specifically Ohio—tradition. This 200-year-old bean down here and this 150-year-old bean over there—that tradition has always existed here in Ohio. It hasn’t been championed yet to the degree that it has in the South. That’s one thing that we haven’t gotten the credit that we deserve: for preserving gardens and the recipes of our ancestors. Just because there isn’t a Hoppin’ John recipe of Ohio doesn’t mean there’s not a tradition of being gardeners and frugal Americans who really understand food.
Photo: Bertman Ballpark Mustard
On Michael Symon’s plan to create a Cleveland-style Barbecue.
I think that’s a very Cleveland point of view and I definitely agree with it. I don’t think he’s trying to say, “I want to get on the Barbecue scene and show these Barbecue champions what Cleveland ‘cue is all about.” I think he’s saying, “I just want to identify with my town and region and show people exactly what it means to barbecue when you’re in Cleveland,” which I think means showcasing wood from Ohio. There’s tons of white oak, cherry, and birch. In terms of pork, in all due respect to everyone, I just think our pork is better, especially at the prices we pay for it. Those little pieces of ingredients make a ton of sense to anyone in the region, especially when you include Cleveland’s Stadium Mustard. Essentially there’s no where else in the world besides New Orleans where you can find a similar mustard.
On starting a restaurant in Cleveland as opposed to New York.
I don’t necessarily think it’s any easier, but I think owning a business is—and regardless if it’s restaurant or a design firm or whatever it is—it’s a very difficult and very painful process. But moving home and doing it in Cleveland made it more affordable, so it made it more attainable for that first step. I think that modern-day media and the conversation that we’re able to have right now, over the phone or via the internet, could not have happened a decade ago or 20 years ago. So the opportunity to expand and make sort of whatever your vision of a journey is entirely possible. I think that’s why everyone—now more so than ever—is moving home.
I mean, we did it 12 years ago, and it was still a relatively new idea then. Now, it’s very easy to make the decision to try and achieve your goal at home, whereas in the past, you could only achieve certain accolades if you were in New York or San Francisco. And when it comes down to expanding, our expansion is based 100 percent on the talent we have inside of the company. So when we have lots of chefs that have moved back, or GMs that are willing to do the same, then we know it’s time to open a new restaurant. We are actively pursuing new talent to get it to a place where we’re over-saturated at a restaurant, so then we have depth to open a new one.
That’s one thing that we haven’t gotten the credit that we deserve: for preserving gardens and the recipes of our ancestors. Just because there isn’t a Hoppin’ John recipe of Ohio doesn’t mean there’s not a tradition of being gardeners and frugal Americans who really understand food.
On what’s caused chefs to ditch nationally-recognized food centers for their hometowns.
Number one, I think traditionally speaking, people thought that the middle of the country wasn’t interested in cooking food. I think that was just lack of supply, not lack of demand.
Number two, as far as northern Ohio goes, the grass, plains, and soil content that we have up here aren’t as polluted as the true middle of the country, where huge agricultural-driven farms dominate. There was already a small-farming component, and that was one of the things that was initially amazing to me. I could get beets and mushrooms, among other things, for cheap, whereas the same stuff from a place like Union Square Green Market in New York I could never afford to buy for my family. Now, I can afford to buy those items without even questioning it. I can then charge a quarter of what I charged in New York in a restaurant.
You know, when we first started up maybe six years ago, I was in Philadelphia cooking and they saw what I’d made on the menu for $29. It was half of a pig’s head, almost three pounds of flesh. And people were like, What are you doing, this would be $75 here! That’s the beauty of Cleveland: I could offer value, beyond anything they could ever offer. And our pork is frankly better. I don’t mean to be a dick about it, but our pork and our beef is better. Our garlic, our tomatoes, our peaches, they’re better.
— michael symon (@chefsymon) May 14, 2015
On the power of Midwestern-bred food personalities.
What Andrew Zimmern and Michael Symon have done for the Midwest is undeniable. They have become the mouthpieces for their regions. You’re talking about millions of people every day seeing you, and they’re thinking about the Midwest. And I think over time it allows opinions to change from a place someone would never consider moving to, to a place that becomes a destination. Those guys really made it easy for other chefs to move home.
That’s the beauty of Cleveland: I could offer value, beyond anything they could ever offer. And our pork is frankly better. I don’t mean to be a dick about it, but our pork and our beef is better. Our garlic, our tomatoes, our peaches, they’re better.
On not confusing the dining scenes between Columbus and Cleveland and the rest of the Rust Belt.
If we go back twelve years, I joked and said if you put Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Columbus together you’d have the ideal Rust Belt city. The money of Columbus and the geography of Pittsburgh, combined with the people of Cleveland, would make the perfect city.
But the rise of each of those is really different. I think that Columbus has been able to modernize rapidly. And owner-operators can open seven restaurants and get a similar experience because there’s so much money, coupled with the fact that the population’s centered in a very small, dense place. Cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland are doing things where the owner-operators are getting away with wonderful—I don’t want to say ego-driven—food that they’ve always wanted to do. Are we able to open seven restaurants? No we’re not. We don’t have what Columbus has. And I think there’s a difference between those cities. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh are experiencing a real sort of culinary renaissance, whereas Columbus is experiencing not necessarily a renaissance, but more so extreme growth.
But I think the connotation we want to avoid is that Columbus is trendy. As true as that may or may not be that’s not really something I think about or speak for. Because I feel like people from Columbus take major offense to it. People from the region take offense to the idea that their city has changed. I don’t mind the association of it being cyclical or emulating places like Chicago or Washington D.C. because there will always be money pumped into those restaurants where you can grow really fast.