Jonah Munson of the Walnut Room: "You're no better than your kitchen staff"
This is part two of my interview with Jonah Munson, exec chef of the Walnut Room. Part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Working with my hands with simple, wholesome ingredients to create something delicious that people will enjoy and want to come back for.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: I think sourcing great local and organic ingredients at prices that are feasible for your restaurant is difficult.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? The farm-to-table trend and the movement toward better, local and organic ingredients.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: I've had an orange Betty Crocker circa 1977 cookbook for many years that's been used so often that the cover fell off and the pages fell out, so last year for Christmas, my wife and my kids gave me a near-mint-condition copy that they found on eBay. It was priceless.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: A great cookbook -- I love the Bread Bible -- and a great mixer, like a KitchenAid, especially if you want to give a splurge gift.
What's your own fantasy splurge? A trip to Italy to see some great masters at work in their pizza kitchens.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I have more than a hundred cookbooks at the house, but I can't remember the last one that I bought, although I think it was a church cookbook from the 1950s. I love going to yard sales on the weekends just to pick up cookbooks -- everything from the great masters to the spiral-bound cookbooks produced by churches and schools with all their personal recipes. I use a lot of different cookbooks to pull recipes from, and I usually pick the things I like from those recipes to use as building blocks for new recipes.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid to follow your instincts; look at different variations of the same recipe and then take the things you like from each and make the recipe your own.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Over the years, I've learned a lot from my wife, who's a Montessori teacher, and together we're raising our children with the core concepts of respecting yourself and others, the value of hard work, independence, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. I find it frustrating that these traits aren't well represented in today's society. It's what I look for in my crew members, and it's what I look for in myself.
What advice would you give to a young chef? You're no better than your kitchen staff, so train them right and have the same high expectations of yourself as you do for your staff.
What's your biggest pet peeve? I get most irritated by an employee who thinks he or she doesn't have to put his hands in the dishwater just like everyone else. I do it. You do it.
Your best trait: I'm easygoing, calm, quality-minded and respect other people, and I'm a strong believer in self-learning. I taught myself to bake in college and have expanded that skill for many years. I've learned everything from working on airplanes and running chemical pilot plants to building decks and baking wedding cakes and some of the best pizza you've put in your mouth. Trying to be the best you can at what you love is my philosophy on life -- and one of my better traits.
Your worst trait: My wife says I've never learned to clean as I go, but in my defense, you've got to make a mess to make something wonderful.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? My mother's kitchen. Being the youngest of six, we had a lot of meals together -- some really good home cooking. And even though my mother and father are on their own now that all the kids are out of the house, when we go over for meals, we still get the home cooking, except now they've taken our favorites and put a healthy spin on them. During my last visit back to Georgia, which was actually a few weeks ago, we had a big dinner at my mom's house, and she broke out the lasagna, but instead of her traditional meat-and-cheese version, she made a wonderful lasagna with rice noodles and fresh vegetables from my brother's garden; it was absolutely delicious.
What would you cook for your mom if she came to your restaurant? A simple, fresh Caprese salad and one of her favorite pizzas with olive oil and garlic sauce, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, spinach, red onions, sliced tomatoes and a little Gouda cheese on top.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Thinking that you don't have to do everything your crew has to do, from working the line to washing the dishes and mopping the floors. Always lead by example.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? Since moving to Colorado, we've really missed good Southern cooking and soul food.I'd love to open a restaurant where people could eat some awesome soul food and have a great time sitting down together for a family meal. It would be a healthier concept but still retain the comfort food that we know and love.
Favorite chef's counter: If I could be at my mother's kitchen and learn all the aspects of cooking she's accumulated over the years, I'd be there. I learned a lot from growing up in a house with three brothers and two sisters, everything from sharing all the chores to learning how to cook for large groups of people. What chef's counter, you ask? It would be my mother's.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: At the end of a fourteen-hour day, when the dishes are done, the floors are mopped and you know you've brought smiles to a lot of people.
When guests want to thank you for a meal that really wows them, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? At my restaurant back in Georgia, we have a display kitchen, where guests can watch us tossing dough in the air and then build their own pizzas and cook them in our brick oven. The best rewards are the waves and words of thanks that we get from the enthusiastic adults and kids standing at the glass window with their eyes fixated on the whole pizza process. A patron stopping on their way out to give us a compliment and a promise to pass on the word about some great food -- that makes us happy, too. Social media is the new word of mouth, so if you love an independent restaurant, review it online and help others find the good stuff hidden in the masses.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Every Friday night at the Walnut Room is crazy.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I've never considered myself a chef, although I've had an interesting career path. I'm a certified airframe and power-plant mechanic for airplanes; I've worked for a chemical-treated-wood company; I've done construction; and I've done environmental sampling and training work. The main theme for me has always been hard work and a dedication to quality, and I'm glad my journey has brought me to the Walnut Room. My motto is that it's not always the destination but the journey that makes life enjoyable.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Local fresh milk, (thanks, Longmont Dairy), butter and eggs. We love breakfast at my house.
Last meal before you die: A hot meatloaf sandwich with ketchup on white bread and a side of my mother's homemade macaroni and cheese.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? There's no telling, but whatever it is, I'd do it well.
What's in the pipeline? We've already added some great new items, and I think our next step is going to be weekly-specials pizzas and sandwiches with the best local ingredients we can find. We have a few ideas in the hopper already; you'll just have to come in and see what we think of next.
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