Interview: chef Jonathon Sawyer

Chef Cleveland


What was the most recent dish that you developed, and what was your inspiration and approach?

The dish I did last night is one we’ve been working on for quite a few months. It’s on the Tavern’s entrée menu right now, but it had been conceptualized by us a long time ago. It’s a duck neck and leg zampone, or cotechino. So we de-bone the whole duck and we leave the skin intact so we have three pieces, essentially. One that’s the neck and breast on top, with the head still attached. The other two are the leg, thigh, and three-quarters of the way up the breast. Then we grind the duck meat with aged beef fat and Ararat seven times to emulsify it, like a mortadella, almost. Then we pipe it into the duck’s cavities, those three cavities. We sew it up with a needle and then we poach it real low and slow. We crispy fry it and slice it. It’s basically like a fancy duck bologna. The dish was us riffing on a classic cotechino or zampone sausage that you would see around Rome around New Year’s, but using poultry, and using this new purchasing technique – for us – of getting Buddhist killed ducks. I think it’s a real value dish, because it’s super labor intensive, but when customers see it, they know, clearly, that it came from this kitchen and this kitchen only.

Buddhist killed ducks? Tell me about that.

It’s a more humane kill for ducks. Ducks are finicky to begin with. They’re not like chickens or turkeys. Even in the bigger farms, they need a good amount of space to roam. The Buddhist kill, they slit either side of the duck’s throat, as opposed to chopping the duck’s head off. A lot of times what happens, if you drop the head off, if they’re not drained properly, the ducks or chickens would actually choke on their own blood, asphyxiate themselves, as opposed to bleeding out, and that adds a rush of endorphins to the muscles and makes them tougher than they would be. The Buddhist kill is more humane, and in my opinion, the flesh comes out way better. Anyone can purchase ducks or chickens that way, you just need to know and order in advance, and it’s a much more humane kill.

So it’s a technique.


What’s the top selling dish at each of your restaurants, and why do you think that’s the case?

At Noodlecat, it’s probably just our classic miso ramen. We just do a great confit of pork overnight, shio kombu, tare and then pork broth itself is blended with all those things. The miso broth itself is made with 25% smoked pork bones and 75% fresh bones, so it has a little bit of smokiness behind it, and then a whole bunch of miso. For Clevelanders, it’s the most recognizable ramen, even though College Ramen is simpler and Fried Chicken Ramen is more interesting, the most identifiable is the miso.

At the Tavern, it’s hard to say because we fluctuate with the seasons. As we’re coming out of winter, we do pretty hearty dishes. This risotto we’ve been doing with black trumpets and wood ear mushrooms and Jean Louis Chave’s wine, that’s probably been our best seller throughout the winter. It’s not going to be on much longer, and we cook it to order, so it takes 45 minutes from when you order it to when it hits the table, but risotto’s one of those things that’s worth taking your time.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?

For us, we disregard the piece of paper that you put in. We do on-job trails or stages for every position, whether it’s server, cook, waiter, dishwasher, party planner. We’ll do one verbal interview and lay the groundwork and come in and work for a day. We say it pretty simply. “If you like us and we like you, we’ll go forward. And if not, we’ll buy you dinner and no hard feelings.” Once we get them in the door, I work for work ethic, I look for eye contact, I look for cleanliness, and speed. We can teach the rest of the things, but if you’re motivated and you’re respectful, and you’re willing to work hard, then we’re willing to hire you, no matter how old or young or where you come from.

Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?

Yeah, beef liver. I don’t know why. As much as I love offal, something about beef liver doesn’t do it for me. And I’ll try. I’ve tried many, many, many times. I’ve also had raw octopus and raw live baby squids that I really didn’t enjoy when I was in Tokyo, but once again, I’d try it again. I’d give anything a shot. There’s a right way and a wrong way to cook everything.

What’s the first dish that you ever remember cooking?

We always put it on our menu in the summer. It’s called Dad’s Tomato Sandwich. For me, it’s a very vivid taste memory of going out to the garden with my parents, whether it’s my mother or my father, grabbing cucumbers, grabbing tomatoes, coming inside, toasting whole wheat toast, spreading it with mayonnaise or butter, depending on whatever we were looking for, slicing up those vegetables, and salt. And that’s it. My mom is a great cook, but was also at the tail end of this holistic hippie movement, so we always had whole wheat toast, and that was something I grew to love, also toasted whole wheat, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

What was the last meal that you cooked at home?

Breakfast every day. We have two kids, and they’re off to school by 8:15 every day, so I get up at 6:30 and cook whatever the kids are interested in. Typically we do potatoes, and we have six chickens, so we’ll typically do eggs as well.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

why do u talk to chefs what about line cooks , ya know guys n girls that cook for 150 people in 10 minuets

kornman, the efforts of line cooks is important, but I’m also trying to drive traffic to Food GPS, so recognizable names works best for that. Also, plenty of line cooks are working to get to where people like Jonathon Sawyer are at with their careers, so hopefully interviews like this, with industry leaders, will help inspire them.

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