When he was 15 years old, Chef Johnathan Schwartz got a job washing dishes for some family friends with a catering company. He washed dishes with them for a year before they became the chefs at a golf course in Ontario. He stayed with them and started with prep cooking and then onto the line. Once he’d had that experience, Schwartz couldn’t get enough of it and he’s been cooking ever since.
Canadian Chef Profiles: Johnathan Schwartz, St. John's, NL
Chef Johnathan Schwartz combines intriguing local and international ingredients with cutting edge culinary thinking at The Reluctant Chef in St. John's.
Chef Johnathan Schwartz
The first chef who had a strong influence on Schwartz’s culinary thinking was his chef at the Öviinbyrd Golf Club in Ontario. He had graduated from the Stratford chef’s school and staged in California and South America. Schwartz says, “He was extremely hard and disciplined. He was my first mentor and he worked hard at teaching me the rules of the kitchen.”
Another major influence for Schwartz were his peers in the culinary world. They were all competitive and helped to push Schwartz to strive for more and work harder in his field.
The third major chef with an influence on Schwartz’s career was Jonathan Gushue, the award-winning chef of Langdon Hall in Ontario. Schwartz says, “He had more of an international sense of what was going on. He opened my eyes to the idea of going for my aspirations.”
When Schwartz took over the kitchen at The Reluctant Chef, the restaurant only had thirty seats and stuck to a five course tasting menu. He still approaches food the same way as he did when the restaurant opened. His approach involves working with locally and internationally sourced ingredients to “expose Newfoundland diners to different flavours and different products that they might not be accustomed to.”
They've also added a menu of small plate bar snacks. Schwartz says, “The bar snacks give us a chance to cook the kind of food that chefs would like to eat. We’re making fun, flavourful dishes.”
Schwartz changes the menu every two weeks so he seeks inspiration for dishes anywhere he can get it. He explains, “My cooks contribute ideas, I read books, eat out and scour the Internet for blogs about dinners at restaurants that nobody’s heard of in big cities.”
The new restaurant is still dealing with a somewhat limited kitchen space so Schwartz has to also bear that factor in mind. He points out, “We have to work with what we have and still push the limits. We might take a flavour combination and prepare it in a different manner. Sometimes you just build around a product in whatever way you can.”
Chicken slider, Lester's Farm basil, dill goat cheese, tomato marmelade, onion ring, house made bun
A good example of Schwartz’s culinary approach is a spring dish he made with whelks. He took the whelks, boiled them and took them out of their shells. He grilled them and served them with an asparagus puree, asparagus tips and burnt onion “soil”.
He continues, “We cleaned out all of the whelk shells and put them in a bowl with stones that we got from the beach. We filled those whelk shells with a spruce tip beurre blanc. When the guest got the dish, they were instructed to pour the beurre blanc from the shell onto the whelks.”
When sourcing ingredients, Schwartz says that he’s mindful of his budget while still trying to provide high quality products. He explains, “If I’m going to use an expensive ingredient, imported or local, I have to balance the menu out with something like a potato dish. It’s no less delicious but it offsets the cost of something like local diver scallops or monkfish from the Meditteranean.”
Another important aspect of sourcing ingredients is dealing with limited supplies. Many of Schwartz’s local suppliers are small scale and can’t provide a great deal of volume. Schwartz says, “For instance, I have a local microgreen and root vegetable farmer who’s super small scale. So for a dish using her lettuces or root vegetables, those ingredients might have to change throughout the run of a menu.”
Smoked whelk, asparagus puree, burnt onion soil, spruce tip beurre blanc
Building relationships with his suppliers is a constant process for Schwartz. He is always talking to them via telephone and he often visits them at the farmer’s market. He says, “We’ll have a chat about what’s new, what’s coming up and what I’m doing with their products on the menu. It gets them interested and feeling like someone’s doing justice to their product.”
The qualities that make up a good chef are discipline, cleanliness and confidence. He says, “You must always keep your station clean, keeping pots and pans organized and polished. It’s a task that never ends and you have to keep up with it. You want it to transpire in your cooks as well so I try to lead by example.”
He adds, “A chef should be confident in what they cook. They need to stand behind their menu because not everybody’s going to like everything you put out.”
Schwartz is looking for a well-prepared and organized kitchen team. He says, “The cooks need to always be prepared, be ready for service and be ready to adapt to any situation. People have many more dietary restrictions these days and you have to be ready to serve them something that you’re proud of.”
Although there are rough days in any chef’s life, Schwartz says that there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. He points out, “You have to look back at how far you’ve come. You realize that you’re at a point that once seemed so far away. If you want to make a life long career as a chef, you have to give it your all and the dividends will really come in the later years.”
Hazelnut-chocolate mousse crepe, whipped cream, bruleéd bananas, hazelnut-bacon crumble
This article is based on an interview with Chef Johnathan Schwartz conducted via telephone on March 16, 2016 and recorded at that time.