Insider’s Perspective: Greenhouse Tavern Chef/Owner Jonathan Sawyer
EDITOR’S NOTE: We talked to a few notable Clevelanders and asked them what they liked about Northeast Ohio. Here’s Jonathan Sawyer, celeb chef and chef/owner of The Greenhouse Tavern, Ohio’s first green-certified restaurant.
Were you born in Cleveland?
I was raised in Cleveland but I was born in Chicago. Both sides of my family have lived in Cleveland. My grandparents lived in Maple Heights and Bedford Heights, so my roots are here.
What neighborhood do you live in now?
I live in Shaker Heights. I grew up in Strongsville and met my wife in Strongsville.
What’s the best thing about living in Shaker?
The school district. That and my house, which is almost 200 years old. I really like old things and my house was built in 1855. It’s a really cool old farmhouse. There’s a lot that we could do to it to make it more livable and modern, but I’m okay with the way it is. The way that the houses were built back then, it had a coal cellar, a root vegetable cellar, and a regular cellar all fully-enclosed in giant layers of brick. I use one for my wine cellar and all the vinegar we use in the restaurant is made in my basement. It has an 83-case production capacity.
Why do you think the restaurant scene in Cleveland has taken off like it has?
Cleveland, for a city as small as it is, really has a phenomenal food culture and chef culture. Thanks to people like Michael Symon, we started getting the national spotlight even though we had chefs pushing the envelope and doing incredible things well before that. It was through the national media paying attention to him that people started paying attention to chefs like Zack Bruell and me. Without Mike and what he brought to the scene, we probably wouldn’t be getting as much attention. We owe him a huge thank you for that. One of the most interesting things is that it’s much easier for us to compare ourselves to the Pacific Northwest. We don’t have the mass, but man do we have the product. I think that’s one of the most interesting things: how fertile the Cuyahoga Valley is. We’re so lucky to have the products we have in such close proximity. We’re weights and pounds ahead of other cities. No offense to Colorado, but their tomatoes suck. No offense to Florida, but they can’t grow corn.
Has the popularity of East Fourth Street surpassed your expectations?
I think it’s still growing. That’s the thing I love about downtown. When we were researching places to put our restaurant, we were thinking about near West, far East and downtown. We compared places like Tremont, Ohio City and Coventry and Detroit Shoreway and we thought our food and message was big enough that we wanted to share it with everybody. I appreciated the neighborhood restaurant we had with Lolita with Mike Symon and also what I had with Bar Cento but I thought it was time to show our food to more people. Being downtown was that logical progression. If you’re taking your food and putting it on a pedestal, downtown is the place to be. You have a built-in, giant lunch clientele ready to go. You can draw theater-goers, foodies, sports fans. That’s the cool thing. You will see couples, families, old people and young people all enjoying our food. We’re such believers in it that we’re close to signing another lease for another downtown restaurant.
Is the greenhouse on your roof almost done?
I think this summer we’ll have seating up there and the following summer we’ll have the greenhouse. We had planters up there last year that bore some herbs and lettuce for us. I think this year, we’ll be able to do the same. Those six six-by-six planters did great for us.
What’s your favorite bar in town?
La Cave du Vin. [Owner] Erich [Lasher] is a friend of mine and we both have the same sort of enjoyment of fine French red wines. I like going there to relax and hang out.
They have a good beer selection, too.
I know you spend a lot of time at the restaurant but what do you do when you’re not working?
We have two kids and two dogs, so we try to do activities based around local food. Sometimes that means going to see a chicken farmer and sometimes it’s hiking and foraging for wild mushrooms and greens or just going to Shaker Square Farmers’ Market. We also like to go for bike rides in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It typically involves some fun and education for the whole family, and I think it’s important to educate kids that peaches have pits and that chickens don’t grow out of boxes.
– Interviewed by Jeff Niesel