Cleveland Chef Jonathon Sawyer on Sensual Foods, Gluttony + Grower Champagne

Even though he'll be working, Chef Sawyer will still be able to spend Valentine's Day with his wife, Amelia. She's a co-owner of Greenhouse Tavern!

New York’s loss proved to be Cleveland’s gain as Chef Jonathan Sawyer settled there after several years of cooking in some of Manhattan’s best kitchens. Behind the burner at The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland since 2009, Sawyer has become a driving force in the local food movement in Ohio and his cooking and commitment have helped The Forest City claim its place on the culinary map. Chef Sawyer takes his turn at our Valentine’s Day OpenTable R.Q., or Romantic Quotient, Test, telling us why you won’t find tiger paw on the menu — but you will find grower Champagne. 

What are your thoughts on food and drink acting as aphrodisiacs?

I definitely think that food and drink can bring people together for the greater good of romance. I don’t believe eating a tiger paw makes you strong for days, if you will. It’s really a combination of things, from ingredients to everything else — talking together and eating together.

Aside from aphrodisiacs, what do you think of when you think of sexy foods?

I think a lot of people want to associate luxury with dishes being sexy, but I think almost contrary to that. You don’t want to fill up on starches and butter. There are foods, though, that are luxurious that I think of as sensual which are lighter — asparagus, oysters, and almonds, for example, and prepared in a lighter style. We want people to walk out and be satiated, but not too full to enjoy the rest of the night.

Have you ever wooed a woman with a particular dish?

I’ve been married for a while, but one of my wife’s quotes is that she fell in love with me for my deboned crispy roast chicken that I used to do at Kitchen 22 with Charlie Palmer. It was a revelatory experience for her because she said, “If this guy can cook chicken like this, imagine what else he can do!” It’s a simple dish, but if you source and execute it properly, then it’s more than the sum of its ingredients.

Do you have a dish or food you might recommend to diners seeking to set the mood?

I would say a shared dessert or raw fish as an opener are two things you’d want to incorporate into a romantic dinner. The most exciting part about dining is the beginning and the end. If you can start your date on the right note and end it on the right note, you have a better chance. It’s actually just like running a restaurant.

Are there foods that strike you as particularly unromantic or not-so-sexy?

Every list of aphrodisiacs includes garlic, but you just have to make sure your date is eating as much of it as you are. Beyond that, anything that is gluttonous is the most unattractive thing you can do. You don’t want to order the gravy fries if she’s having the salad.

Do you have any suggestions for diners seeking to make a meal at your restaurant as romantic as possible?

On Valentine’s Day, the tasting menu — seven courses for $65 and is offered omnivore or vegan — is all about aphrodisiacs. And, if you put in the “Special Requests to the Maitre D’’ that you’d like the front or rear mezzanine, they are conducive to romance, really beautiful tables. Also, it doesn’t hurt to ask for a bottle of grower Champagne to be waiting for you on the table. That shows you put thought into the date — but without being too presumptuous.

What are your thoughts on PDA in restaurants? Have you ever seen any couples take it too far?

It’s one thing to give someone a kiss as a show of affection, but if it’s an open-mouthed kiss and it’s prolonged, that should be between the two of you. I think my peeve is when we assign people a banquette and they sit next to each other, because that can lead to trouble. I haven’t forcibly removed anybody, but we have cut people off from alcohol. We’ve had two intoxicated people in the bar who were clearly not aware there was anybody else in the restaurant!

Have you had any proposals in your restaurant?

We have proposals on a pretty regular basis, and if they’re planned out, we typically help out, giving them a table alone or putting the ring on a plate. We’ve done it on a dessert many times. And, if we weren’t aware of it beforehand but we catch it after the fact, we send them a bottle of Champagne.

Have you or any of your coworkers met a spouse/partner at your restaurant?

Probably more than we should admit. Our pastry chef and our brand manager are dating. My chef partner and our bar manager met at the tavern and have lived together almost two years.

If you had Valentine’s Day off and could spend it with your favorite foodie, who would that be and why?

After being with our whole family for most of it, I think it would be my wife and I finishing the night together, sipping some grower Champagne and eating oysters.

We wish you and your family — and everyone at the restaurant — a wonderful Valentine’s Day, and thank you for sharing your thoughts in our R.Q. “test.”

On Valentine’s Day, Greenhouse Tavern is creating “A Celebration of the World’s Greatest Aphrodisiacs,” with a seven-course omnivore or vegetarian menu for $65 per person. Book a table to find out if aphrodisiacs inspire you and your date!


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