Chef Jonathan Sawyer

by Rachel Dushkewich | January 24th, 2013 | Chef Interviews

If you’re passionate about great food, fun atmosphere, and environmental sustainability, you simply cannot miss The Greenhouse Tavern! A “French gastro pub” in Cleveland, Ohio, owner and chef Jonathan Sawyer strives to make his restaurant “carbon zero,” operating his building and sourcing his ingredients in environmentally responsible ways. Firmly believing that caring for the environment yields superior quality, his is the first green certified restaurant in Ohio. Whether you want to have a night out with friends and family or host an event in one of their three private banquet areas, their vibrant, casual atmosphere will be sure to delight your senses and exceed your expectations. Their unique menu, changing according to the season, ensures that the food will be second to none! I had a chance to speak to Chef Sawyer himself to learn more about him and this exciting restaurant.

RD: The Greenhouse Tavern has earned quite a number of accolades; Bon Appetite Magazine named it one of the Best New Restaurants in the United States and you yourself won Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef award in 2010. What keeps The Greenhouse Tavern a cut above the rest?

CS: For us, it’s a concentrated effort between chef partner Brian Goodman, pastry chef Matt Danko and myself, and we encourage a dialogue in the kitchen of creativity and collaboration. We really focus on changing one or two menu items a week in order to stay on the season, in the season, but also to allow ourselves to have a culinary microscope over the top of each dish that’s going on the menu. I think it’s this little combination of pride and knowledge and striving to change our restaurant, which keeps it interesting for people. And sometimes that requires furthering your education by going to Italy, France, Japan, Philly, New York, and staying for periods of time to sort of learn what’s going on there, and sometimes it’s just reading a magazine or visiting our farmers’ markets.

RD: You’ve appeared on Iron Chef America, Dinner Impossible, Unique Eats, and The Best Thing I Ever Ate, among other television programs. How has this publicity impacted your career?

CS: I don’t really like to think about it like that. I feel like in today’s society it’s super important that there’s exposure for your restaurant on multiple media fences. For me, it’s about making sure that Clevelanders, and visitors of Cleveland, and Americans know what The Greenhouse Tavern is and know it’s a place they want to eat, and we ensure that people are constantly dining at our restaurants if we continue to get people to pay attention to us, whether it be on television, or radio, or a magazine or a computer.

RD: How would you characterize the food and atmosphere at The Greenhouse Tavern?

CS: For us, it’s a French gastro pub, you know, it’s a pub. We serve food in an uncomplicated manner, in a strictly casual setting, but sourced impeccably and with service that is comparable.

RD: The Greenhouse Tavern is built on environmental sustainability – what specific “green” practices does the restaurant employ?

CS: It’s an overall concept of making our goal carbon-zero. There’s a million things that go into the construction of a building, the upkeep of a building, and the sourcing of a menu that all contribute to that. It’s low-voc paints, its high-efficiency light bulbs, it’s solar powered flushers, it’s compost – five-thousand pounds a month – it’s never using corn syrups or endangered species, it’s not using Styrofoam; there’s a whole litany of things that we pay attention to and then we yearly adopt new ones to sort of continue to be on the curve. But for us it’s also being open-book. There’s other things we could do to make ourselves even more sustainable that we may not necessarily be able to afford, like installing wind turbines or installing green water collection units that we could use for certain aspects of our restaurants. There’s more things that we want to do and that we have a goal to do, that we just, each year, set forth to do more and more.

RD: You use locally farmed, organic ingredients. How does this affect how your restaurant operates?

CS: I think that sort of correlates back to the first question. It’s a week-by-week basis. Whatever’s coming in from the Hoop Houses and the greenhouses and root cellars of our farmers is what we’re cooking now. When we get into the springtime, each week we figure out what ingredients are coming in, what we’re going to have more of, and what we’re going to have less of, so we correlate our menu directly to the supply and demand of Mother Nature.

RD: What are some must-try dishes on your menu right now?

CS: I typically think the things that are going out of season and things that are going into season are the most interesting to me. We’re getting to the tail-end of our root cellar of last year’s apples, so our raw Rittman apple salad with walnut tahini, Greenhouse Tavern vinegar, fennel, and celery-leaf salad is definitely a must because you have dishes right there that are from my favorite artisans – Tavern Vinegar Company, Mackenzie Creamery goat cheese, Rittman Orchard . . . I like the smoked lake fish and latkes because it’s a good show for us of what comes out of Lake Erie. Most people that think of the Great Lakes think the only fish that comes out is walleye. We’re using multiple different fish in there, whether it’s black drum, perch, or whiting. There’s a gnocchi we’re really enjoying right now with the cardoon and Oregon black-truffle – Parisian buckwheat gnocchi, which is a cool representation of some pretty simple flavors.

RD: You also came up with the concept for Brick and Mortar Pop-up Restaurants. Tell us a little about that.

CS: The idea behind Brick and Mortar is: the nature of the food industry is pretty collaborative, especially with modern-day chefs and getting to know friends around the country, and it was a way for us to formalize and really introduce Clevelanders to concepts they would never be able to see, whether it’s Lee Anne Wong’s food or Michael Schwartz’s food, or Jeff Michaud from Philadelphia. You don’t have to buy a plane ticket to try their food, you just have to be in the know of what we’re doing with our Brick and Mortar pop-ups and we bring them to you.

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