Although Jonathon Sawyer started working in kitchens at 13—“I wanted a job and there was a Tex-Mex restaurant, the Mad Cactus, around the corner”—the James Beard-nominated chef developed his reverence for food even earlier in the Cleveland suburbs where he grew up. Whether he was watching his mother make turkey farce or his great grandmother stuff cabbage, the women in his life had a lasting influence on his cooking. “It wasn’t how many ingredients were on a plate, but how fresh and properly sourced they were,” he says.
That precocious locavorism is what inspired Sawyer and wife Amelia to open the Greenhouse Tavern, Ohio’s first nationally certified green restaurant, where diners feast on hay-scented poached egg omelets, beef-jerky spaghetti, and saltimbocca with scrapple. The pair also runs two outposts of the funky ramen shop Noodlecat, and their Bavarian pretzels and gussied-up frites feed fans on game days at Quicken Loans Arena and FirstEnergy Stadium.
Sawyer’s enthusiasm for Cleveland is unstoppable.
While studying industrial engineering at the University of Dayton, Sawyer worked at Café Boulevard “for this super surly old German dude who was the meanest bastard you could ever imagine.” Sawyer dug math, but in the midst of an intense 10 days devoted to AutoCad, the endless plotting of coordinates became too “fucking awful” for him to contemplate engineering as a career. Serendipitously, that weekend the icy German told Sawyer, “You know what, Jon? You’re not bad at cooking.” So Sawyer swapped college for culinary school in Pittsburgh.
After working with Philippe Ruiz in Miami, he went up to New York, snagging a post with the Charlie Palmer at Kitchen 22. “I loved Charlie’s New American thing,” Sawyer says. When his son was born, he plotted a return to Cleveland, working for Michael Symon at Lolita. “He made a sturgeon and smoked oxtail, which at the time was mind-blowing for me. I didn’t know you could put meat and fish together like that,” Sawyer recalls. With one more whirl through New York as the chef of Parea under his belt, and a daughter on the way, Sawyer returned to Ohio for good, this time determined “not cook for anyone else.”
The enthusiasm for his hometown is unstoppable. Any day now he’ll open the doors at Trentina, a Kickstarter-funded ode to the German-Swiss-Austrian food of northern Italy. There will be gooey strangolapreti, cheese-filled bread dumplings, and pastas that put wheat like farro and kamut in the spotlight. Naturally, Sawyer is quick to note, “Most American farro is grown in Ohio.”
Here, the heavily tattooed family man delves into some of the dishes—from the polenta savored among a gaggle of Italian male opera singers, to Mom’s hefty popovers—that have inspired his unbridled cuisine.
Some of my fondest taste memories are from childhood. My mom is a great cook and her big tradition was that on our birthdays she would make anything my brothers and I wanted. I remember every single year—18 in a row—I picked her popovers. She used an old copper pan and they puffed up super huge, hollow in the middle. I like them burnt on the outside, soft scrambled on the inside, and almost raw and sort of chewy in the middle so you can fill them with stuff. When I started cooking in New York for Charlie [Palmer], my mom came to visit one New Year’s and I finally asked her for the recipe. It was cut out from a ’70s home magazine from her mother. At Charlie’s, we served them with braised beef cheeks and vegetable bourguignon, but I’ve made them everywhere since then, like with our whole-roasted short rib at the Tavern. It’s an example of how my childhood carried me into my professional career. (Photo: Flickr/Edsel Little)
Sunnyside pizza at Bar Cento
After I graduated high school I went to Rome to visit my uncle who worked for the papacy. One of my strongest taste memories from that time is the pizza al taglio I ate on the streets. When I first came home to Cleveland we opened a Roman restaurant, Bar Cento, with simple olive oil-based cuisine. The pizzas we made were barely leavened—not a flatbread, but still yeasty with chew and pull. At that point there was an egg renaissance in America, so I did this pizza that was a riff on Carbonara called the Sunnyside with black pepper, Pecorino, and a little Caccio Cavallo. It was frustrating to me to see pizza with one egg on it because who gets the yolk? So this signature pizza had long pancetta in the shape of a peace sign and an egg in each space. It dictated our entire menu: all our pizzas would be cut into six slices so everyone could have half an egg. I’m no longer associated with the restaurant, but it’s still on the menu. It’s nice to see a dish that stands the test of time and isn’t about a chef, but a recipe. (Photo: Opentable)
Whole-roasted pig’s head at Greenhouse Tavern
This is a dish I don’t anticipate us ever being able to take off the menu. As a green restaurant, we bring in whole animals from like-minded farmers. For the pig’s head, we thought we could turn it into rillettes, or be precious about it and put it in cheesecloth and make coppa de testa, but that’s not really our style. So why not barbecue it up? We served it as a special and by 8pm they were gone. As soon as one head went out everyone was like, ‘What is that? I want to order that.’ We still bring in whole animals, but for something that started off as an act of frugality, the heads are actually the only cut of pork we buy now from our farmer. He used to get 99 cents a pound for them; now he gets $5.99. (Photo: Flickr/Edsel Little)
Pike quenelles (France)
Sometimes I go on these wine tours with my friend David Shiverick and I have fond memories because you’re staying in farmhouses, hitting three vineyards in a day, and tasting like you’re being shot at. The meals are always super homey, and the one I really loved was in the Rhône, at Pierre Gaillard’s house. His wife brought in some fresh water pikes from the market and then I saw her over the tamis and I said, “Oh my God, we’re making quenelles.” She served them with fresh tomato coulis, barely puréed, and a huge pat of butter. They were poached, and it was just awesome. It’s a super-traditional dish I had heard and read about, but here I am sitting down and eating it at the table with one of the most revered winemakers. I closed my eyes and felt how special it must have been to eat this dish a hundred years ago. (Photo: Fishing in France)
Foie gras steamed clams at Greenhouse Tavern
Brian—Charlie’s chef and now my partner at the Tavern—and I made foie gras steamed clams at Kitchen 22 that flirt with the line between rustic and luxury. The recipe’s evolved, but it’s still on the menu at the Tavern. We wanted to make one dish with four directly identifiable characteristics. I know that sounds super heady, but we needed sweet, salty, sour, and fat. The fat was foie gras; the salt was what the clams steamed out; the sweet was the onions we roasted whole and burnt like crazy so there was a sweet inner flesh when you tore off the skin; and the sour was vinegar. Four ingredients sourced properly—along with the grilled bread—that are reflective of good cooking technique. We haven’t achieved a dish so simple and balanced since. (Photo: Greenhouse Tavern/Facebook)
Secret polenta (Trento, Italy)
My wife’s family is from Trento, a place that’s more sauerkraut than it is tomato sauce. The first time I went, the most outstanding single experience I had was meeting the secret society of male opera singers who get together once a month in the back room of a duomo. You have to have an invitation and you have to sing, but they didn’t tell me all that when they dropped me off. Everyone’s smoking cigarettes and there’s this mason jar of the most vile potato grappa you have to drink. Because I was the new guy I had to go first. I took a huge sip of this Trento moonshine and they realized I was okay. On the patio they were making traditional Valsugana polenta in a copper cauldron with live fire, fresh Luganica sausage, and pecorino. Witnessing this whole celebration of corn, singing, and friendship was astounding. (Photo: visitvalsugana.it)
Tsukemen ramen at Noodlecat
We didn’t care what it took, but when we opened the Tavern we were determined to put Cleveland ahead experientially so the rest of the country didn’t think we were making sun-dried tomato wraps. So we said, let’s do this with ramen and opened Noodlecat. Amelia and I went to Tokyo and did tons of R&D and when we came back I said a tsukemen, dipping-style ramen was going to be our signature because nobody else was doing it. It was going to be porky, fishy, and have ground sesame. I put it on and it fucking bombed. Everybody poured it over like salad dressing. We made tweaks and we informed our servers, but culturally we weren’t ready for it. I bet if I put it back on now it would probably be accepted, but I think it’s important for chefs to fail and learn from their mistakes. (Photo: Flickr/Edsel Little)
I used to never get sick and now with the kids I can count at least four times a year I can’t go to work. When someone in the family is sick, we make this soup that’s a penicillin for the modern Sawyer family. It’s an Italian, Germanic, Far East mash-up: matzo in a whole roasted chicken miso broth with a ton of roasted garlic. It’s one of the few dishes the entire family enjoys, and there’s also something therapeutic about rolling the matzo balls, roasting the garlic, and cutting the carrots. But just like good matzo ball soup, you have to use the whole chicken.
Dad’s tomato sandwiches
My dad would eat these tomato sandwiches, always on whole-wheat toast with soft butter or mayo and salt. He’d go out to the garden and pick the tomatoes. In the spring he’d add raw onion; in the summer, a cucumber. That’s all it’s ever been. At the Tavern, during tomato season, we do it with whole-egg mayo and pressed onion. It’s so simple but elicits so many reactions among this subset of Clevelanders we feed. Everyone has a tomato sandwich story, and I think we found the most recognizable harbinger of summertime. (Photo courtesy Greenhouse Tavern)
Charlie Palmer’s chicken at Kitchen 22 (New York, NY)
Charlie made a deboned roast chicken at Kitchen 22 that was on the menu forever. It was half a chicken—thigh, drum, wing, breast—but on a single plate of skin, almost like a rectangle. He applied a duck-rendering technique, cooking it over super low heat. The rest of the dish had these traditional Robuchon-style potatoes that were equal parts butter and potato. The real kicker is that when my wife first ate it, she said, “I will marry you for this chicken.” I thought, “So, cooking can bring me happiness.” It was a stunning chicken and the one dish everyone from that neighborhood remembers from the restaurant, but it was no-frills. It didn’t even have vegetables. (Photo: charliepalmer.com)