Aspen Food & Wine: Ohio chef is hands-on
ASPEN – At his Greenhouse Tavern in downtown Cleveland, Jonathon Sawyer has nine different vinegars of his own making on hand, plus another five in the experimental stage, still in American oak casks. “If you’re as crazy about fermentation as I am, you could taste 14 potential vinegars,” he said. Sawyer is in the habit of passing around his vinegar “mother” – analogous to a sourdough starter for making bread – that he made from local bacteria from the Cuyahoga Valley. When Sawyer was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2010, he sent bottles of his vinegar to the other nine chefs on the list, with instructions to periodically add beer, hard cider and wine, to keep the lineage going.”I have this vision of my vinegar being all over the country,” Sawyer said on Wednesday from Denver, where he was planning to eat that night at Fruition, where Alex Seidel, another 2010 Best New Chef, cooks. “What a cool notion – that people in California and Colorado are continuing this vinegar from Ohio.”Sawyer, who also curdles his own ricotta and blue cheese and bottles his own olive oil, and makes still more vinegar concoctions above his stove at home, is not so much a cooking enthusiast as he is an ingredient nut. “I get geeked out on ingredients,” the 30-year-old said, “and let them be the star of the plate. There’s little modern haute cuisine. We’re not purchasing chemicals; we do the opposite. Bottling our own olive oil, making our own vinegar – that makes our life easier. It’s easier if you use great ingredients.”The ultimate result of Sawyer’s methods is food that is one of a kind. Virtually all of the ingredients he doesn’t create himself come from local producers. So unless you were to go to the Cleveland area and follow Sawyer to the farms and ranches where he gets his veggies and meats, and then snuck into the Greenhouse Tavern kitchen and swiped some of his vinegars and cheeses, you wouldn’t be able to make the food that he makes.”These are dishes that cannot be re-created anywhere else. That’s because of the ingredients we use,” said Sawyer, who will be in attendance at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. “We strive for food that is unique, meaning there’s perfection and imperfection. If we make ravioli, some will be thinner and some will be thicker. The shapes will be different. We want people to see that there was hands-on involvement in making this.”The ingredients Sawyer used early in his food career were not so precious. On his 14th birthday, he began working at the Mad Cactus, in Strongsville, Ohio, where his older brother Jesse was a cook. Apart from taking seriously their southwestern-style ribs, the Mad Cactus was standard Mexican, and Sawyer found himself chest-deep in tortilla chips and the like.”I perfected the art of French-fried ice cream,” he said. “And I saw my first tarantula. It crawled out of a box of avocados. I was 14, so I was intimidated.”The lure at the time was simply the job. “I just wanted to make money to be a teenager,” said Sawyer, who bears some resemblance to Seth Rogen. (“Any modern-day, slightly heavy comedian – Zach Galifianakis, Jack Black, Seth Rogen,” he clarified.) But having an older brother in the kitchen came with certain privileges, and Sawyer graduated quickly from the crummiest jobs to actual cooking. He liked kitchen life enough to take a job at a Houlihan’s during his high school years. That earned him the money to buy a car, but for a genuine affection for cooking, he credits the time he spent with his mother at home, experimenting with family recipes. “That’s where the exploration started,” he said.Sawyer studied industrial engineering at the University of Dayton. That career track came to an abrupt halt after a year and a half, or until the week that he had to shadow an actual engineer, and see what an engineer’s existence looked like.”By the third day, I was like, No way I’m going to do this the rest of my life,” he said.He dropped out and went to cooking school in Pittsburgh, then followed with kitchen work at the Biltmore Hotel in Miami. In New York City, he opened Kitchen 22 with Charlie Palmer, and was chef at the short-lived Parea, which earned two stars from The New York Times. When he learned he was about to have a second child, he and his wife returned to Cleveland, and Sawyer opened Bar Cento, which earned him a nomination for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award.Sawyer is a bit amazed to be earning all this attention. “I definitely think any chef from Ohio or Michigan or the western end of Pennsylvania being recognized for food is pretty interesting,” he said. “The Rust Belt isn’t known for its culinary excellence.” The Greenhouse Tavern, opened in April 2009, raised the bar again. But Sawyer wasn’t reaching only for culinary achievements. Part of the idea of the restaurant was environmental friendliness. The Greenhouse Tavern is the first spot in Ohio to be certified by the Green Restaurant Association. “That was because we had kids and want to leave the world a better place than we got it,” he said.The green element extends to the way food is handled. Sawyer doesn’t order any meat apart from the whole animals – two pigs, two to three lambs, half a cow – that come into the kitchen each week. Using whole animals means Sawyer can keep tabs on how the creatures are raised. Of the cow, he said “it’s unbelievably humane, a really pristine ingredient.”That approach means that Sawyer occasionally runs out of bones for stock. Rather than place an order for bones, he sees it as an opportunity to get creative with ingredients. Day-old pasta water, parmesan rinds, onion peel – they all work for Sawyer.email@example.com
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