Rust Belt Revival
After years spent working in some of the best restaurants in New York City, chef Jonathon Sawyer is back in his hometown, raising his family and Cleveland’s food profile. He’s become an incredible son of Ohio, who has changed this town’s culinary landscape with his restaurants Noodlecat, Sawyer’s Street Frites, SeeSaw Pretzel Shoppe, his flagship Greenhouse Tavern, and the soon-to-open Trentina. Not only is Sawyer a committed locavore, he’s also a tireless supporter of sustainable business practices. We talk with Sawyer about crowd-funding his new Italian restaurant, teaching his children to make proper food choices, and why he loves Cleveland’s food scene.
AndrewZimmern.com: You recently funded a new restaurant project, Trentina, via Kickstarter. What are the pros and cons of crowd-funding?
Jonathon Sawyer: Pros – It enables us to socially embrace all of our friends from Bolzano to Boston to Brunswick, Ohio. We live in a social world now and telling our story on Kickstarter allowed us to reach friends and fans all over the world. Con – I don’t think some people understand the concept of Kickstarter as an alternative to bank financing or sourcing investors. Instead of paying a bank an APR on a loan, we are paying the people back with goods and services.
AZ.com: Tell us the story behind your new restaurant Trentina. Why Italian? What has been your process for developing the menu?
JS: Love and my wife Amelia’s Italian heritage. I have known my wife since I was 15, and when she first went to Trento she was in college. We were friends then and I fondly remember her stories of the town she fell in love with. When I was finally able to visit Trento, I quickly fell in love. The food is dynamic and the terrascape resembles that of Northeast Ohio. The menu development has come from many trips back and forth with our chefs, me, and my family.
AZ.com: Your restaurant Noodlecat is a mash-up noodle house. Where did you learn about ramen?
JS: I started to learn about ramen when I lived in NYC during my 20’s. As a young cook with a high rent apartment, Chinatown quickly became the only place I could afford to eat. When I moved back to Cleveland to raise a family, I realized I couldn’t find a ramen house. So after a wonderfully educational trip trip to Tokyo in 2010, I became obsessed with the cuisine and decided to open Noodlecat.
AZ.com: You’re killing it in the restaurant scene and recently launched a line of vinegars. Where did the idea come from?
JS: Frugality and food miles. You can take ingredients from your backyard to your basement, as well as use bottles of wine and tap lines to make vinegar which contains probiotics, which are essential to good health and prosperity. Vinegar is also a great substitute for citrus, especially these days with limes being where they are at right now.
AZ.com: Sustainability plays a role in not only your restaurants’ design, but also in your food and line of vinegars. What inspired you to build your businesses upon these principles?
JS: We want to leave our kids with a better place than our parents left us.
AZ.com: How have you passed on your love of food to your children?
JS: We are arming them with the knowledge to make proper food choices. Not tricking them to have cauliflower in their mac ‘n’ cheese, but having them ask for broccoli on their sandwiches. We involve them in purchasing and sourcing of food for our family. We take trips to farms that raise animals and that kill animals. We want them to be able to make their own food choices as they grow and to understand why they are making them.
AZ.com: For any naysayers out there, what’s so great about Cleveland’s food scene?
JS: It’s the culinary epicenter of the Rust Belt Revival, a.k.a. the affordable Chicago. We have the West Side Market, MOCA, the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. There is a great ethnic history in Cleveland and that is spread throughout the city in its food.
AZ.com: Name 5 chefs outside of Ohio who are really impressing you these days.
AZ.com: Where are you eating in Cleveland on your day off?
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JS: Cold brew coffee, Trenton wine, cider, kombucha, our chickens’ eggs, veggies and miso. Never any roots or fruits allowed.
Get chef Jonathon Sawyer’s recipe for Strangolapreti alla Trentina.
About Jonathon Sawyer
As a proud Clevelander, award-winning Chef Jonathon Sawyer has worked tirelessly to help elevate the culinary landscape of his hometown with his distinctive restaurant concepts, including the soon-to-open Trentina, an intimate, fine-dining restaurant focusing on the cuisine of Trentino in Northern Italy, where Chef’s wife, Amelia Sawyer, and her family originate. Trentina will add yet another highlight to Chef Sawyer’s growing list of acclaimed Cleveland culinary destinations, including his flagship, The Greenhouse Tavern, a French and seasonally inspired gastropub named by bon appetit as one of the “Best New Restaurants” in 2009; and Noodlecat, a mash-up noodle house focusing on local ingredients, sustainability, and top-tier ramen, with locations at Public Square and the historical West Side Market. In addition to his stand-alone concepts, Chef Sawyer has also made an impact on the stadium foodservice scene with two restaurants launched in 2012: Sawyer’s Street Frites, football fare with a twist at the Cleveland Browns’ First Energy Stadium; and SeeSaw Pretzel Shoppe, serving Bavarian-style bretzels at the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Prior to establishing his Cleveland businesses, Sawyer gained cooking experience across the country. The Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts graduate began his culinary career at The Biltmore Hotel in Miami before working in New York City alongside Charlie Palmer at Kitchen 22. Chef Sawyer worked as chef de cuisine for his friend, colleague, and fellow native Clevelander, Michael Symon, and then became Chef Symon’s executive chef at Parea in New York, receiving a two- star review from The New York Times. He moved back to Cleveland in 2007 to partner with a local entrepreneur to open Bar Cento, a modern Roman enoteca in the Ohio City neighborhood, before he went on to launch his own culinary empire, which now includes a product line.
The self-professed “vinegar-obsessed” Chef pioneered this passion in the vast cellar of his century home, fermenting more than 300 gallons of single-origin, single-varietal, and barrel-aged wine, beer, and malt vinegars to launch Tavern Vinegar Co. in 2008. Tavern Vinegar is available online and in specialty shops around the country, including Publican Quality Meats in Chicago, Room Service in Cleveland, and Revival Market in Houston.
Chef Sawyer’s passion, skill and creativity have been rewarded greatly since he arrived on the culinary scene. In 2010, Food & Wine magazine named him a “Best New Chef” and he’s been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2013 and 2014. In addition, Chef Sawyer has made several national television appearances including Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern, Iron Chef America, Dinner Impossible, Unique Eats, and Best Thing I Ever Ate.
When Sawyer is not in the kitchen, he is surrounded by his family: his wife, Amelia; son, Catcher; daughter, Louisiana; dogs Potato and Vito; and chickens Acorn, Bunny, Bear, and Squid. He is an avid cyclist, as well as a tireless supporter of local agriculture and sustainable businesses both in Northeast Ohio and around the country.