Jonathan Bardzik is a storyteller, cook, speaker and author based in Washington DC where he lives with his husband, Jason. He’s inspired by the fresh seasonal flavors he ate from his mother’s garden and discovers today at farm markets. Jonathan shares easy, home-cooked food that is full of flavor and has been a regular contributor to Bear World Magazine for the past year and, more recently, Queer Forty too!
We thought it was about time we had a sit down to learn more about this amazing chef ahead of a busy Holidays season full of tasty food!
Q40: Hi Jonathan, so how did you get started as a chef?
Jonathan: Good question. As someone who cooks for a living it often surprises people to learn that I have no formal training and have never worked in a restaurant kitchen. Despite have catered three weddings for over 100 people (and done the flowers for five others) I am not a caterer either. My love for cooking and people led to a career as a storyteller, cook, keynote speaker and author. I spend my life speaking and cooking in front of audiences, whether live or on screen.
I started cooking professionally in 2011. I was 8 years into a successful career as director of marketing and membership for a national trade association. I lived in a beautiful neighborhood on Capitol Hill with my incredible husband of two years, Jason. At 37 years-old I had checked all the before-I-turn-forty boxes and life was good. But I started wondering what the next big adventure was in my life and it turned out to be this. It all began with Saturday morning cooking demonstrations at Washington DC’s historic Eastern Market and over the next three years developed into a full time gig. I’ve never been happier.
What would you say is your style or take on the food you like to cook?
Simple, truly seasonal and always a little surprising. I love when I serve a dish at a farm market – something I’ve cooked live in front of the audience in under 20 minutes with just a few farm-fresh ingredients – and I get to see eyes open wide and smiles spread as people taste it. It is always magical to me that a few simple, high-quality ingredients can transform into something so much greater than the sum of the parts.
I’ve developed more than 800 recipes for my cooking demonstrations and I am often asked what inspires me. I began creating these recipes when I started my farm market cooking demonstrations and needed to present four new recipes each week. Cooking over a farm and garden season of 10-12 weeks you end up using the same ingredients over and over. At some point you run out of ideas so my inspiration was often desperation. Today, when I host a #testkitchen every two weeks on Tuesday nights we still take out the weekend’s farm market haul and ask what do these ingredients want to be tonight?
We see you cooking at a lot of farmers markets, how many do you get to a year?
I cook at ten different markets in the Washington DC area each year. You can usually find me at a market two days a weekend, three weeks a month, 8 months a year. That adds up to about 50 appearances a year. I’ve cooked in front of more than 400 live audiences in the seven years since I started these demos in 2011.
What is it about farmers markets you enjoy the most?
I love the quality of the food I find there. I love the selection, those interesting items you only find from the smaller, diversified farmers who sell at the market. But the thing I love the most is the community I find there. So much of our shopping has become impersonal, online, faceless. Farm markets bring us together with other home cooks and the people who grow and produce our food. We get to know them, their farms and their families. There’s advice and knowledge we can only gain overtime through building those relationships.
What is the question the audience asks you the most?
I always get asked where I buy my ingredients and what equipment I use. I love sharing – especially many of the wonderful small producers that I’ve discovered and the products that make cooking everyday so much fun.
One of my favorite questions I’ve been asked is do you plate each meal? It was asked by a woman during a cooking demo series I did at USDA. She clearly wanted me to say “no,” unfortunately I did not. I said, “I plate each meal, but here’s some good news. It doesn’t make it taste any better, so if the difference between ordering takeout and home-cooked meal is eating something right out of the pot with your fingers then go for it!”
I plate each meal because I believe it’s an opportunity to show the people at the table that they are special and that this day, everyday, is worth celebrating even – and maybe especially – when that is a table set for one.
What’s your least favorite ingredient?
There isn’t much I don’t like. I mean, I earned this belly honestly! If there’s one ingredient I have a love/hate relationship with, it would be okra. I love eating okra and I have had it prepared deliciously in Southern, African and Indian dishes. I even did a video on a brand new cultivar of okra that would look as good in your flower garden as it would with the vegetables, but aside from roasting it I struggle to prepare it well. If any great okra cooks want to give me some lessons, I am all ears!
Who are your favorite on screen TV chefs?
I have such great respect for people who can cook and speak at the same time shaping big ideas into digestible memorable bites. However, brave and a little brassy hold a special place in my heart. I know every one loves Julia Child, but her fearlessness, vulnerability and ability to present complicated technique in an easy approachable way was inspirational. We’ve gotten so afraid of knowledge treating it as difficult or elite and I believe we should treat it as fun, rewarding and accessible.
I also loved the Two Fat Ladies. They had clearly hit a point in life where they were fearless and free. I loved their easy banter that could get a bit blue and equally easy approach to dishes that went from simply classic to complicated.
Today I love watching Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson for the same reasons. In them I see a reflection of my belief that whether you are in the kitchen or sharing a meal around the table that cooking allows us to create and share joy and that learning – new ingredients, new recipes, new techniques – can deepen the quality of that experience over time.
If you could give an amateur chef (like me) one good tip what would it be…
Taste your food. Every recipe ends with three words and those three words are ‘season to taste’. I think most of us were taught that means a pinch of salt, a crack of pepper and you’re good to go. It really means “stop and taste your food.” This is when we make those small changes that make such a big difference – a splash of vinegar, a pat of butter, a dash of cayenne for heat or some fresh herbs. I correct seasoning every single time I prepare a dish.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I love the flavors of Asian food – Chinese, Japanese, Thai… but my favorite thing to cook is what I haven’t cooked yet. I love trying new recipes, new techniques and new ingredients.
About 15 years ago I spent an entire afternoon preparing dinner for my parents. My Dad kept asking if I was having fun and I told him that I’d know when dinner was on the table – if it was a successful meal. The next morning he said to me, “I think you got it wrong yesterday. You’ve been cooking for long enough that you could put a close to perfect meal on the table every time, but every time you hit the kitchen you take a risk, you cook something new.” It taught me a lot about myself in terms of my cooking and my career.
What is your go-to quick meal?
Depends on the season. In spring it’s blanched asparagus drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg. In summer I’ll turn zucchini into everything from an Asian stir-fry to the filling for a taco seasoned with cumin and Guajillo chile powder. Sautéing pork chops or chicken thighs with a spice rub and a quick pan sauce can be on my plate next to a salad with a freshly made vinaigrette in under 20 minutes.
The trick for me to a quick meal is to use ingredients and techniques you know really well. If you’re comfortable sautéing and really confident with a handful of vegetables and seasonings or sauces let those be your go-to.
One more tip. I find doing work ahead of time makes a big difference. Not making big batches of food to reheat as leftovers, but having homemade sauces available on the fridge and leftovers that you can recombine. Right now I have a dill mayonnaise, homemade sweet chili sauce and salsa verde left over from a demo which would let me turn the same sautéed chicken thighs and steamed broccoli in to three totally different meals with little effort.
Where can people find your recipes?
I’ve written three books of stories and recipes.
Simple Summer is about easy summer entertaining with menus and music playlists. Seasons To Taste is a four-season look at farm market and garden-fresh cooking, and my latest book, Fresh and Magical Vinaigrettes is a look at the single most valuable recipe I know served up as a sauce, a marinade and on lots of salads.
Where can people see you live, or find out more about you?
Visit my website JonathanBardzik.com for a full schedule of my appearances and to find out more about my career. To see how I’m spending my time and cooking each day follow me on Instagram @JonathanBardzik or my Facebook Page.