This is the first part of a three part Chef Chat series. Come back on Thursday and Friday, to read parts two and three of this series.
Walk into the lobby of the Hotel Zaza, and as you're checking in you'll see a life-size billboard of the hotel restaurant Monarch's new executive chef, Jonathan Jones. Next to him, the caption reads: "Don't let the picture fool you. He is not that serious." And in big bold letters, it says: "Only about his food!"
For guests staying at the hotel, Jones' face re-appears on placards in each guest room and on in-room dining trays, all part of a campaign to show that Hotel Zaza has retained one of Houston's most prominent and much-loved chefs.
For his part, Jones, who is probably most known for his role at Beaver's and through social media under his former Twitter handle @PapaBeav, has been noticeably quiet since he joined Hotel Zaza's Monarch Restaurant. We caught up with him last week for a chat about his new role and what he's been doing since he left the independent restaurant world for a position at one of Houston's finest hotels.
EOW: Have you worked in a hotel before?
JJ: I did, many years ago, at the Riviera Grill under chef John Sheely, which is currently operating under the Sam Houston Hotel and Restaurant 17 I believe.
EOW: You're familiar with hotel operations, then.
JJ: I got a glimpse of hotel operations. At that time, it was a little different because the restaurant was leased instead of owned by the hotel. And the facility as far as event space was much smaller than here. We've got more than 10,000 square feet of event space, so I wouldn't say that I was really familiar with it when I walked in here.
EOW: Okay. So, with a 10,000 square foot event space, what can you be juggling at once?
JJ: No more than three or four fruits at a time, I guess. Fortunately, we have a department head, Todd Ruiz, who's the chef of our banquet department. So basically, what I get hit with is the overflow from that department. If there's a wedding that comes in with 400 to 500 people, it's the afterparty that comes to us, or they'll go to the pre-party. We also have conferences and business meetings, so we have to get coffee, tea, water, fruit, continental breakfast setups, meeting amenities, and then at the same time you're running luncheons and room service.
EOW: So, you've been managing all that?
JJ: I help manage all that. What I directly manage is the kitchen operations that happen in the restaurant, Monarch. And I'm in charge of coordinating all food education, food development, teaching of the brand to the other employees, room service, dining room service, assisting with dining room operations, trouble shooting customer service. They advocate that we're out on the floor to meet face to face with our guests quite a bit, which kind of engenders the relationship with people, because we have a lot of repeat customers here, and a lot of staycationers as well.
EOW: I would imagine that you, with your background in Houston-- just being very prominent in the food community -- that you're pretty well known among the locals, yes?
JJ: Yes, for quite a few of them. Where I had little niche restaurants before, it was catering to a much more focused audience. This is a much larger and much more diverse audience, because it's international travelers, people in the Med Center, people in treatment at the Med Center, so the needs are different, the expectations are different -- it's not just the local foodie group. I'm always thrilled when they come in...
EOW: Do you know when they come in? Do they announce themselves?
JJ: Sometimes, but I'm hoping to see more of them soon.
EOW: I'm sure they're interested to see what you've done with Monarch since you got here. What were you tasked with doing? How long have you been here?
JJ: I started September 26th, so about eight months.
EOW: Eight months, okay. And when you came in, what were your first objectives?
JJ: They wanted to roll out a new menu real quick, because we were transitioning seasons. We were already getting into fall coming into the end of September, so they were like, "Hey man, you've got two weeks, give us a menu. Let's roll it out."
EOW: What were you trying to do with that first menu?
JJ: Not knowing the customer base that well -- fortunately I had stayed here a few times. This was kind of my staycation hotel. Before I started working here, I'd probably stayed here six or seven times. The pool, spa, weight room, late night service, rooms and the bar are awesome, they even have DJs. I mean, Zaza's a cool place to be. I think it's the most unique, most fun hotel in Houston, for sure, at least for me. So that was part of my excitement about working here. But what I looked at was, "Okay, I need to create comfort for people." Because even though change is good for people, not many people are predisposed to be open minded about change, so what I did was look at "What can I make that can be homey, and still, as it's presented, look aesthetically pleasing, and maybe not only meet, but exceed the expectations?"
JJ: I didn't want to come out super esoteric and super modern and kinda just shock people. I just wanted to say "Hey, man, here's my hand. I'm reaching out to you, shake my hand, let's be friends." So at that point, I was really just trying to garner some trust among my clientele, and I think I did that.
EOW: How would you differentiate what you came up with and what was here before? If you were to compare and contrast, what was the food like before versus what you brought in those two weeks?
JJ: It was playful in a different sense -- obviously the chef had a different personality. I thought it was fun -- some of it looked a little more Mediterranean. There was an emphasis on the kind of steakhouse model menu. I don't think the food was so different. The design of the menu was really where, as a chef, I differentiated. I thought "Hey man, we have so many steakhouses in Houston -- let's go for something different and identify Monarch as a standalone restaurant." I thought we were trying to offer all things to all people, and I just thought the menu needed a little more focus. And so I attached some sincerity to the menu with items from the local seafood market, bringing in local seafood fare. Being on the Gulf Coast, that gives us a bit of Houston identity. I thought here, with all the people that I know, the farmers that I know, the ranchers that I know -- I thought I we could identify ourselves as "Houston" Hotel Zaza Monarch restaurant, so that's what I did.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with chef Jonathan Jones.