Jonathon Sawyer
Chef Jonathon Sawyer is the 2013 MenuMasters Innovator award winner.

MenuMasters 2013: Jonathon Sawyer

Nation's Restaurant News salutes culinary creativity with its annual MenuMasters Awards. Honorees will be celebrated at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on May 18. Read in-depth profiles of all 2013 winners >>

For years the culinary scene in Cleveland was dominated largely by neighborhood ethnic restaurants and locally brewed beers. It also had the distinction of being the city that produced the canned pasta brand Chef Boyardee.

Now, the metropolis at the banks of Lake Erie has become one of the prime food destinations east of Chicago, with a culinary movement ushered in by a number of homegrown chefs, including the winner of the 2013 MenuMasters Innovator Award: Jonathon Sawyer.

Sawyer’s menu creativity coupled with his commitment to environmental sustainability has pushed the boundaries of the farm-to-table movement to the upper echelons of form and function. His flagship concept, The Greenhouse Tavern, located on the city’s bustling East 4th Street, was the first restaurant in Ohio to be certified “green.”

Sawyer’s culinary philosophy is rooted in two basic principles: The proximity of the farm and soil to a restaurant correlates to the quality of the food, and green business practices are fundamental.

“It’s a natural and collaborative process,” he said. “A large part of my job is mentoring and educating the chefs as they come up, much like I was mentored.

“I work with them on what we source and how we source it,” he added. “At the beginning of each week, I give them an idea for an ingredient on the menu and give them six to seven ideas of how I’d like to see it done. We have tastings every day.”

Greenhouse Tavern, the seasonally inspired French gastropub, has become the nucleus of Sawyer’s expanding foodservice and retail portfolio. His group also includes two units of Japanese mashup Noodlecat, Sawyer’s Street Frites and the SeeSaw Pretzel Shoppe, all in Cleveland.

His Tavern Vinegar Co. also produces some 500 bottles each month of assorted fermented vinegars, which, in addition to being sold in Cleveland, are available in specialty shops in Chicago and Houston. The line is set to expand to Miami and Los Angeles.

Sawyer is also responsible for Brick & Mortar Popups, a concept featuring temporary restaurants and venues that regularly showcase nationally known chefs.

Sawyer’s menus are testament to his local-sourcing creed, filled with items like Ohio lamb burgers, Lake Erie smelts and Ohio walnut soup. But his zest for maintaining a balance with the environment doesn’t stop at the menu.

Greenhouse Tavern is appointed with the cedar wood from a barn that stood during the Civil War, while the concept’s LED fixtures are framed using former bicycle rims. Many of the tables and cabinets were recycled from furniture used in high schools and colleges in the 1950s.

Creatively sustainable

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Sawyer's Tavern Vinegar Co. produces some 500 bottles each month of assorted fermented vinegars.
Sawyer's Tavern Vinegar Co. produces some 500 bottles each month of assorted fermented vinegars.

Joe Crea, the food and restaurants editor for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, noted that Sawyer maintains a nice balance between creative, enjoyable dishes and environmental sustainability.

“He’s developed a lot of fans who appreciate what he’s done,” Crea said. “Nothing that he does surprises me anymore in terms of new directions and creativity.”

Sawyer’s passion for all things culinary was sparked at age 13, while cooking with his grandmother. He went on to earn a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Dayton, but soon discovered that he didn’t belong in an office.

“I tried the nine-to-five for a while, but I knew that I would never be as happy as I was in the kitchen,” he said.

After attending the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, it was on to Miami and a stint at The Biltmore Hotel before heading to New York, where he worked alongside renowned chef Charlie Palmer at Kitchen 22.

“Charlie was good in the fact that he allowed you to make mistakes and then correct them,” Sawyer said. “He was not a micromanager, and under him you learned how to run a restaurant.”

“Jonathon always showed a desire to work with new ingredients and new trends,” Palmer recalled. “He was constantly coming up with specials that were unique — that we hadn’t seen before in those restaurants.”

From there Sawyer went on to work with Clevelander and celebrity chef Michael Symon, first as sous chef at Lola and then as executive chef at Parea, a modern Mediterranean concept in New York.

“A lot of people come in and out of your kitchen over the years, and there are certain ones that stick out as special and super talented,” Symon said. “He was certainly one of them.”

Symon, who operates 12 restaurants in addition to appearing regularly on such shows as “Iron Chef America” and “The Chew,” noted that focusing his immense creative energies has made Sawyer an even stronger chef.

“For him, early on, it was about getting focused,” he said. “He was so creative and wanted to try so many things; he needed to be reined in a bit.

“It’s a nice problem to have, and I think that it served him well later on,” Symon continued. “The greatest chefs are sometimes the ones who have the greatest restraint.”

In 2007 Sawyer returned to Cleveland to open Bar Cento, and two years later, he and his wife Amelia, together with chef-partner Jonathan Seeholzer, opened Greenhouse Tavern.

On deck for Sawyer is Trentina, a concept whose menu focuses on the Trentino region of Italy.

“I’m very lucky to have found something that I love doing and am good at,” Sawyer said. “The way I look at it, I haven’t worked a day in my life.”