Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Jonathan Jones of Monarch at the Hotel Zaza, On the Ethnic Diversity in Houston's Dining Scene, Comfort Food and Surprises on His New Spring Menu

This is the second part of a three part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

Yesterday, we chatted with chef Jonathan Jones of Monarch at the Hotel Zaza about his role as a chef in a big hotel restaurant. Today we talk about some of his personal influences, get his thoughts on soul and comfort food, and a sneak peek into the new Spring menu.

EOW: Let's take a look at your menu. I notice there are a lot of Asian and ethnic influences.

JJ: Which kind of speaks to my background, which also to me speaks to Houston, which is we are one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the United States. Being the energy capital of the United States, being a port city, being coastal -- all this lends itself to ethnic and cultural diversity. I mean, you go out and you dine, and you can find anything in Houston.

EOW: What do you think we're strongest at?

JJ: I think the Vietnamese presence in Houston and the quality of the Vietnamese food in Houston is extremely strong and diverse now. Whereas before all you could find is a bowl of bun or a good bowl of pho, now you can find banh mi, banh cuon, fried banh bao at the Hong Kong City Mall, and places like Crawfish & Noodles. I think the Vietnamese presence is really strong, the Chinese presence is really strong. And then you go to a place like Blue Nile, and you can have a really great Ethiopian meal. You eat with your hands, and they bring you spongey bread rolled up, and you eat with the bread and your fingers with no silverware.

EOW: What is the flavor profile of Ethiopian food? How would you describe it as a chef?

JJ: Most of it is heavily spiced, a lot of chiles, a lot of garlic and herbs. A lot of things are almost like stew-based or slow-cooked.

EOW: Are they spices we're familiar with?

JJ: I think so. Berbere is a spice that was made popular by Marcus Samuelsson, because he has an Ethiopian background. For me, I'm familiar with it. For the general public, I don't know. It's hard for me to speak about that. After 26 years of cooking, I have so much of that in that my head.

EOW: Me personally, I always feel like there's this push to come back to comfort food.

JJ: This is a very coastal thing here. What's comfort food here? Shrimp and grits, chicken fried steak...

EOW: But to me that's more like soul food.

JJ: But, see, soul food is comfort food. In the southern states -- I have this conversation often with my African-American friends -- that down here, soul food crosses the borders. It's not just a food of African-Americans, it is a food of Southern people.

EOW: So, what is soul food, what encompasses soul food?

JJ: A lot of soul food was inspired by bits and pieces. "How do I stretch what I have?" Well, you had these ham hocks, you had these bits and pieces -- how does that become a meal? "Well, I had these greens, I had these onions, I had these hocks," and so that all of a sudden with some rice became a meal. That's the heart of soul food. "I couldn't get the loin parts, I couldn't get the best part of the ribs," so what did I end up with? I got rib tips, or pickled pig's feet, or fried pig's tails.

EOW: Because it's pretty hot in other cities now. The comfort food-type restaurants in San Francisco or Chicago or New York -- they are doing really well now.

JJ: Oh yeah. And you'll see in any menu I ever do, that there's a soul food or comfort food-style dish on there. And especially in a hotel where people are traveling. Sometimes people just want to come in and have something comfortable.

EOW: And that's your shrimp and grits?

JJ: Shrimp and grits is a comfort dish. An eight ounce beef tenderloin with a really beautiful veal reduction in the form of bordelaise, great buttery mashed potatoes and just sauteed spinach -- that's comfort food. The same with the ribeye. Sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and bordelaise. These things speak to a welcome home -- sit down, you're having a good meal, you're having meat, you're having sweet potatoes. The effort there is you buy the best meat that's around, so I buy Hereford. I buy 100 percent Hereford beef.

You look at the simple dishes -- they're meant for the health conscious. Oftentimes you're traveling, you don't know what you want. So a piece of grilled chicken with olive oil and sauteed spinach sounds good. That's the clientele I have at the Hotel Zaza and the Monarch. I have everyone from the guy who's going to eat the tete de cochon fried pig's cheek croquette with the champagne gelat and the berry yogurt, to the person who's just going to have the piece of grilled chicken, and then everyone in between. And that's where this is so different than an independent restaurant -- they have a very focused target market.

EOW: You have to build a menu for that clientele.

JJ: We have a lot of staycationers, too. We have a couple that stays here almost every weekend that lives in Conroe. I know when they're here because I know what they order. I can look at their ticket and say "Oh, Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So are here." So I'll go out and speak to them and say, "Hey, welcome back."

EOW: What are they ordering?

JJ: He typically orders mussels minimally spiced. So I'do white wine, butter, shallots, garlic, lemon, and lots of parsley. And it's delicious, like a moules meuniere.

EOW: Do you have mussels on the menu?

JJ: I do. They're called tequila mussels. They're delicious. I did these before, and Ecky [Prabanto] from Blacksmith -- she's from Southeast Asia -- she said "You know, this dish is so very familiar to something I've had before." And it's cool because it's one those equatorial foods that can be Mexican, can be Caribbean, can be Southeast Asian, because it has coconut milk, lime, chiles, garlic and cilantro. And these ingredients are used in a similar fashion across the equator. So again, that's one of those dishes where I knew I'd hit a lot of people.

EOW: Let's talk about the redesign of the menu. You went from more of a steakhouse menu to what looks to me like a more streamlined menu. Did you have to fight for the dishes on here?

JJ: It's never really a fight. It's always a discussion. I work very closely with the senior vice president, president, the owner and the general manager of the hotel. I do a tasting for them. We always do it in the kitchen. Whoever's actually here, the waitstaff, anybody gets to try it. They're very good about saying "Okay, guys. You all know your customers; let's get everybody's opinion." And the first time I walked into that, I was a little surprised, but you know what? They do know their customers. Their opinions are my best conduit to what's really going to be accepted well here, so I embraced it, and it's turned out the second menu has become wildly popular.

EOW: When did you roll out your second menu?

JJ: It's been about two weeks now.

EOW: What are the big surprises with the ones you wouldn't have thought would sell so well?

JJ: I didn't think the octopus would sell as well as it has.

EOW: I'm telling you, Houstonians love octopus!

JJ: I think so. We get ours from Portugal. And to denote quality, two rows of suckers per tentacle are better than one. When a Greek man tells you that, you don't argue with him. Frixos -- he's one of our gulf guys that brings lots of fish to us -- he says. "Jonathan, you have to have this octopus." I'm like, okay, so I got it, and it's unbelievable.

I stew it for an hour in Italian tomatoes with preserved lemons, bay leave, oregano, crushed red chili and a generous amount of olive oil. When it comes out, we cool it down, we cut up the tentacles and drop them immediately in extra virgin olive oil. So they sit preserved in olive oil, and then we pull them out to order and flash grill them. We put a little bit of char on it, and serve it with fried potatoes dusted in pimenton de la vera, which is Spanish paprika, and then I've pureed the accompanying sauce -- the octopus yields about 50 percent of its body weight in sea water -- so you have this ridiculously briny, delicious sauce that is of pureed preserved lemon and Italian tomatoes. We dehydrate some black olives and sprinkle some salty bombs of dehydrated black olives.

EOW: Aww, you're killing me! That sounds magnificent. Okay, so last question. What would would have for you last meal?

JJ: My last meal....when I was a younger man, it was grilled cheese sandwich and cream of tomato soup. It's not that any longer. I would probably really enjoy a big bowl of pozole with menudo and a fried egg on top.

EOW: Your own or someone else's?

JJ: My own. (laughs heartily). I think I surpassed my teachers. I feel very good about those dishes that I do. That's my last meal. I'm gonna have a bowl of pozole and a bowl of menudo side by side! And of course all my condiments. I want my cabbage, I want my chiles, I want my radishes, I want my tostadas with my avocado, I want my oregano, I want my lemons and my limes. And a big frosty tequila beverage. That's happiness.

Check back with us tomorrow when we sample a whole bunch of new items from his Spring menu.

Monarch at the Hotel Zaza 5701 Main Houston Tel: 713-526-1991

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham