With 32 years in Houston's restaurant scene, Jonathan Jones has touched a lot of palates. The eloquent chef observes how the needs of his community have changed over the years and with his return to Beaver's, it feels a little bit like he's coming home.
It's undeniable that Beaver's off the Washington corridor has hatched a lot of bar and restaurant talent over the years. Each person, each story he told, had me feeling like Fred Savage at the end of The Princess Bride when he doesn't want grandpa to stop reading.
Back in the day, Jones studied alongside Chris Shepherd and Randy Evans at The Art Institute of Houston, and over the years they continued to foster the local food movement, their talents growing together in friendly competition.
Early Jones was a sous at Chez Nous and afterward opened Cafe Chiasso, to which he received a glowing review from Alison Cook. Next, he double timed it on the line at Scott Tycer's Aries and John Sheely's the Riviera Grill, finally taking the chef job at Riviera after out cooking the chef de cuisine on a crazy night.
While working at The Tasting Room Uptown Park, he helped to develop and open Max's Wine Dive, making dishes like foie gras peanut butter jelly sandwiches and even coining, "Fried Chicken and Champagne... why the hell not?" Jones next jumped to Beaver's followed by Concepcion, Monarch at Hotel ZaZa, El Big Bad, and Cane Rosso.
The Houston Press caught up with Jones on a picnic bench inside a newly revamped Beavers.
HP: What have you been working on for the menu at Beaver's?
JJ: So, that's an interesting question. January 1st I was diagnosed with extremely high blood pressure. And then my really good friend, one of my mentors in the business, Brett Brian passed away at 52 years of age. He went home one night and [just] died. Makes you look at things differently. A couple of weeks later, my doctor confirmed that I was an uncontrolled diabetic as well. But, I had already changed my diet and lifestyle completely.
I started looking around at what people were eating, especially younger people. They're eating much smarter. I hate to use the word diet. We all have a diet. It's basically what we eat every day, but I'm not on a diet, does that make sense? When you start telling yourself you're on a diet, you have undue pressure, you feel like you don't have any freedom. I have a dietary path, but I'm not on a diet.
People's allergies have become more and more severe. I've been looking at all of this in the last decade too. Is it because of over-sterilization? Your body has to build up antibodies to fight something, so you end up fighting wheat instead of other germs in your body. I don't know why it's happening, but it is, it's real. More and more people are moving that way, they aren't necessarily vegan or vegetarian, but they're eating more vegetables, more fats, less carbs. Let's face it, carbohydrates are the devil for diabetics.
This movement of people eating differently, if you don't embrace that as a chef, you're just stupid. Regardless of how it came about and regardless of that one person that comes in and is not eating wheat just that day, well okay, that's fine, that's your choice. Our job is not to talk shit about them, our job is to provide something for them.
As a chef you're responsible not only to cook food, but to provide care for your community, your employees and yourself. That's the bigger part of the job. A lot of chefs, especially young ones, don't get that. They want to push their agenda. Beaver's was always a hub for the community anyway, my job is to take care of these people.
I have macaroni and cheese for those people that want carbs and fats. I designed a menu, you'll see it's split up into sections; the good, the bad, and the smoky. And I'm very excited to work with Blackwood [Educational Land Institute] among other local farmers, This is a vegan queso (points at "Roasted Cauliflower.") Yellow cauliflower, yellow tomatoes, garlic, habaneros and a shit ton of nutritional yeast, which makes it taste like cheese. You want to try it?
Comes back with vegan queso and roasted cauliflower.
JJ: You can get a lot of texture out of olive oil and xanthan gum.
HP: That's so good.
JJ: I've got people that are not vegans eating this like it's going out of style. One, people love cauliflower, two, I want to do something people aren't doing. So, now we're going to start offering the "queso" as a queso alongside our other one.
HP: That's so good.
JJ: (Pointing at menu) I hate avocado toast, dude, so, I did what we Texans have been doing for hundreds of years, which is tostadas. That's just my middle finger to avocado toast.
JJ: Why am I not doing classic barbecue? That's another thing I'm kinda getting beat up about. The whole point is, how many barbecue restaurants are in this general area?
HP: A lot.
JJ: Hmm, hmm. So why do I want to compete in the Texas barbecue market, when I don't have the smoker for it? I have a small smoker. Barbecue is very subjective. How ever it was done where you grew up is how it's supposed to be to you. I can't compete with that. Truth Barbecue is going in down the street. They're amazing, I don't want to compete with [them.]
Houston is a global city, why can't I do a global smokehouse? Why do I want to even call it barbecue? People define barbecue differently. Who owns the name barbecue? Beaver's is a global smokehouse, appealing to a global community.
I know how to make things delicious. So now I'm focusing on making delicious things that might actually give you the sensation of full fat (the queso.) You don't miss fat in here. It's creamy and delicious. That's one of the things I love about celery root puree. Celery root puree is my favorite.
JJ: It tastes like fat, it tastes like cream, or milk. It has that mouthfeel. A good celeriac puree is one of the best things in the world. That's what I'm excited about, bringing to my community some sincerity on the menu, saying yes, I have your hard-earned chips and queso. Yes, I have your meat. But, I also have some things that are really good for you too.
HP: What makes Beaver's so special?
JJ: Beaver's is an incubator for talent. When you incubate here, you go on to do something. This is why this place is important to me. I do think we've lost our sense of community a little bit over the years. We've all gotten too big to see eye to eye with one another. I want to bring everyone else back to down to earth, remember where you came from, because at one point, everyone was here.
We started the Houston Chowhound throw-downs at Beaver's. Jenny Wang was trying to connect foodies with the chefs. It was good for us, an event that was just fun. The Shepherds, the Evans, the Monica Popes, the Jamie Zelkos, the Bryan Caswells, all those people.
Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd were the powerhouses behind the bar. That dynamic duo graduated from here. This place connected people… Claire Sprouse, now a national cocktail consultant, Ryan Rouse, who was recruited by Bobby and Kevin to take over, he's behind Grand Prize and Honeymoon, they have a bunch of places, him and Brad Moore, who owns Big Star Bar. Leslie Ross-Krockenburger, Laurie Harvey who does cocktails for Cherry Pie, Justin Burrow who is Bad News Bar, Jonathan Honefenger worked here, Linda Salinas worked here. The list goes on and on and on.
We are the community. Those people where you go eat and go drink with them now, if they have a name, and their doing amazing things, somehow they're probably touched by someone who came through this place, and that's extremely important in a city of six million people. I'm very proud of that. That's where I'm famous, not because of television, but because I have a place with all of those people. Which goes back to my menu, I want to take care of my community.
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HP: So awesome.
JJ: A little long-winded but, (laughs), almost had me crying.