I first met Jonathan back in early 2013 in a dark mezcal bar in Berlin, which no longer exists. We had mezcal shots chased by orange slices and Mexican beers. He was wearing a polo shirt on a chilly Berlin winter’s night, while we all were bundled up in coats and scarves. Really. Then we ate at a Vietnamese spot around the corner, which also no longer exists. Yes, really.
Fortunately the other places we’d eaten together at are still in business ;)
Jonathan co-founded wire, together with Alan Duric and Priidu Zilmer. Jonathan hired my handsome-and-talented husband to be part of the product team, where he helped set up wire in Berlin. We kept in touch with Jonathan and the team even after the handsome-and-talented one left the company at the end of 2014 after the service launch.
We had a food thread on wire, for sharing food pictures and cooking experiments and Jonathan posted often. This is a man who loves his grill. I partly grew up in the U.S. where summers were all about barbecue; when I moved back to Europe, the American-style barbecues became pretty exotic. Really, the flimsy European barbecues does not compare.
Naturally I asked him to participate in the Man in the Kitchen series and he jumped right in!
To me, Jonathan came across as one of those legendary BBQ pitmasters, this towering presence with his bowls of ingredients and BBQ tong, keeping an eye on the BBQ and an ear to the conversation. The rooftop BBQ parties at wire were awesome and the prime seating spots were the ones nearest to the BBQ for good reason.
So tell me something about yourself that Google can’t tell me. When I was a teenager, my mom bought a 33-foot sail boat and we spent a couple years sailing all over: Alaska, Mexico, Costa Rica, Caribbean, Marquesas and finally back to Hawaii. I got a lot of exposure to different foods. We had no refrigeration so everything was fresh that day. We caught a lot of fish, ate tons of beans, rice, coconut, and homemade tortillas.
How did you first start cooking? Have you always been into food? How did you grow to be the cook in your marriage? My mom and my grandmother cooked wonderful, healthy food. Granny cooked three elaborate meals every day with everything from scratch. Both encouraged me to help in the kitchen and eventually taught me to cook my favorite foods.
My wife and I went to boarding school together. The food was not so good, so I did a lot of cooking there. At university I did all of the cooking for us and also frequently for my roommates. That was where the fajitas first showed up.
What food(s) did you grow up eating? I traded time between my divorced mom and dad. My mom became a vegetarian in the 70s so we ate a lot of veggies, salads, beans and rice. At my dad’s house the food leaned more towards continental: Italian dishes, stroganoff, roasted chickens and meats.
What is/are your favourite food(s) to eat? I was in Florence last summer. I think that is my favorite food. Meat and cheese board, truffled pasta, rustic bread with oil and a nice Sangiovese.
What’s your favourite cuisine to cook? Why? It’s always changing but I grill a lot: fish, chicken, meats. Often done Hawaiian style with asian / soy based marinades.
There’s been a (huge) debate about cultural appropriation in the U.S, around authenticity and who is cooking whose cuisine. What do you think about all this? Is it OK when a chef cooks other cultures’ cuisines? I cook Greek, Mexican, Japanese, French, Italian and sometimes do all of them together… Nothing wrong with that. But here is something to be said for purity. I have never had anything close to the dishes we had in Florence anywhere else. Even when the chef was “from there”. Also, “fusion” can be really overdone.
I’ve been looking at vintage Bon Appetit recipes from the 60s and 70s. A lot of them feature SPAM and Jell-O. Which is totally ewww. I’m looking at the modern day equivalent, mostly on Pinterest, with “instant foods” like one-pot pasta or risotti that makes any Italian run away screaming. Do you think certain foods have achieved a sort of “heritage” or elite status that it’s immune to such trends? Are certain foods just that level of informal or ubiquity, like burgers, which renders them immune as well? Spaghetti bolognese is an example of Heritage Status food. Seared ahi salad and chocolate lava cakes come and go but Bolognese is a stalwart — forever. Also, we have seen burgers go upscale and fusion but the core idea is absolutely immune.
Personal curiosity here. Can you please send me a picture of your kitchen? And of your BBQ? :D
Thank you Jonathan!
Jonathan’s chicken fajitas, in his own words in his email to me, “the one dish that I cook very often and that people always ask for. It’s not super fancy or sexy but always a very big hit. I have perfected this over the years… Very simple, healthy, and packed with flavor.”
Make the pico de gallo in advance
- A few tablespoons of finely diced onion
- A nice clump of finely chopped cilantro
- A large ripe tomato, diced
- A large seeded jalapeño, diced
- The juice of a large lime
You make this in advance, 1-2 hours before you want to eat, to let the flavours come together. Put all the above ingredients in a mixing bowl, ideally one that has a lid. Toss together till well-mixed, and keep cool until ready to use.
Make the chicken and the base
- a tablespoon of olive oil.
- 2 large onions, vertically julienned.
- 2 tablespoons of chilli flakes/powder.
- 2 tablespoons of cumin.
- 4 large sweet peppers, about a pound, all vertically julienned. I use a mix of sweet peppers of different colours.
- 4 cups of soy sauce.
- the juice of 2 large limes, or 4 small limes
In a cast-iron pan, heat the olive oil until smoking, then add the onions. Sautée the onions for around 5-7 minutes on high, you want to sweat and caramelise them a bit. Don’t let them burn, so stir often. Once they’ve softened and taken on a golden, brownish colour, take them off the fire, and set aside to cool. The cooling will happen faster if you remove them from the cast-iron pan and place them into a large mixing bowl.
Once cooled, add the cumin, chilli flakes and peppers. Toss together well. Then add the soy sauce and make sure the onions and peppers are well covered by the soy sauce. Cover and set aside.
What you need, for 6 people
- 6 avocados, sliced.
- 2 cups sour cream.
- Tortillas, toasted.
- 6 chicken breast fillets, about a kilo/2 lbs, brined in sugar water for 2 hours (minimum), then diced into bite-sized pieces and tossed in olive oil.
I did this in batches since my skillet wouldn’t fit everything in one go. On a very hot flat iron skillet, sear the chicken. As it nears done, toss on the spiced onion-and-pepper mixture. Keep it very hot and allow some of the liquids to reduce. Stir and serve with hot toasted tortillas, sliced avocado, sour cream, and pico de gallo.
In Jonathan’s own words, “We just roll those up and eat with both hands!”
We had a small fajita party: me and the handsome-and-talented husband, and our friends Phil, Isabeau and Astrid. I tortured Isabeau by making a batch of fajitas and taking photographs before allowing anyone to jump in to eat.
We ate with our hands, Isabeau even licking the sauces off his plate, haha! Everyone wanted seconds, and thirds. Luckily I had made plenty. We all loved this! Savoury, a bit spicy, sweetness from the onions, tangyness from the limes, and the cumin, oh the cumin, adding that extra dimension… Everything was just perfect!
What a happy end of day: disco in our mouths and our bellies were full of great food, thanks to Jonathan’s recipe. You guys should definitely try this at home!
Thank you Jonathan! See you in the next episode!