Once upon a time, the “Great Lakes Region” James Beard Awards went to was synonymous with Chicago. A lot has changed in the new millennium. One place that has initiated some of the change is Cleveland. First it was Rocco Whalen (2004), then Michael Symon (2009), and then Jonathon Sawyer (2015).
The James Beard Award just solidified to the nation what Clevelanders’ already knew: Sawyer, who with his wife Amelia owns The Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat, and Trentina, is a chef whose restaurants are not to be missed.
Chef Sawyer sharpened his knife under two highly recognized chefs, Charlie Palmer and fellow Cleveland native, Symon, who was one of the first to publically praise him when he won the James Beard. Among his competitors was Minnesota’s Andrew Zimmerman.
Johnathon Sawyer sat down to talk about his restaurants and his favorite Midwest town, Cleveland.
Marcia Frost: It must have been amazing to win the James Beard Award for restaurants in your own hometown. Describe the moment you found out.
Jonathon Sawyer: Winning the award meant the world to me. I decided to leave NYC so many years ago to raise my family. Opening a restaurant was a big risk for a young chef and the award made me so proud to be able to accomplish everything I have accomplished in my hometown of Cleveland.
I won the award (at a ceremony) in Chicago. I didn't actually here my name when they announced it. It took a second for it all to click.
My wife hit me on the shoulder and said that I won. I don't really remember the rest other than a feeling of joy and gratitude.
MF: Where did the idea for the Brick & Mortar Pop-ups come from?
JS: We don't do Brick & Mortar Pop Ups anymore, but it stemmed from the desire to bring in chefs from other cities to see our beautiful city Cleveland and to let CLE see culinary talent from across the country.
MF: You’ve worked and trained with Michael Symon. Now that you have restaurants next to each other, do you feel competitive?
JS: Not at all. We are very different chefs and he is one of my best friends and mentor. I am proud to have him as my neighbor both at my house and at our restaurant. He lives down the street from our family.
MF: The Republican Convention is coming to Cleveland this summer. Are you doing anything special in conjunction with the convention?
JS: No changes. Just keep cooking good food, but I am the Chef Chair of an RNC event that I cannot yet discuss.
MF: Have any of the presidential candidates eaten at your restaurants?
JS: I’m not really at liberty to say :)
MF: What are your favorite places to eat in Cleveland, other than your own restaurants?
JS: (Michael Symon’s) Lolita is a date night favorite for my wife and I.
MF: What do you like to do in Cleveland when you have free time?
JS: Hang out with my wife, Amelia, and kids, Catcher and Louisiana. I like to hike and forage and spend the day in one of our amazing museums like the Rock Hall or the Cleveland Museum of Art.
MF: Any great places you like to hike?
JS: I love to ride my bike down MLK to the lake. I probably do this three times a week. I love to sit on the lakefront and gather my thoughts, write recipes, or meditate. I enjoy hiking in the Chagrin Reservation. I love going sledding with my kids on the hill across from Squires Castle and I love taking long Sunday bike rides with my family on Towpath.