Written by James Creange
When creating this Fort Worth Food Stories site, one of the things that I wanted to make sure was emphasized was the chef perspective. For that perspective, I knew that I needed to look no further than Chef Jon Bonnell.
I first met Jon when he was on the inaugural episode of the Fort Worth Food Stories podcast in April of last year. His passion for food and the Fort Worth culinary scene was evident immediately. I’ve been lucky to have many conversations with him since that time, and I always seem to learn something new about food.
I wanted to make sure that his passion was shared with all of the foodies in Fort Worth. This will become a recurring monthly feature that will allow consumers to get their questions answered, and it will allow Jon to stay in touch with the culinary community. This first month will be a “get to know you” Q&A with Chef Bonnell, but we want to hear from you for the upcoming months! Please email all of your questions to [email protected].
Fort Worth Food Stories: How did you first become interested in being a chef?
Chef Jon Bonnell: I had another career at the time. I was teaching in Dallas, but summers were killing me. I just couldn’t figure out what to do with three months off. It was still just me and the dog, and I was watching what had just begun as the Food Network. They had the original Essence of Emeril show, the Mario show, and the great chef series. I just got hooked on food. I heard someone say, “this chef went to culinary school at” fill in the blank, and it just hit me that this is what I should do. I cooked for everybody all of the time. I’ve always been into food. I took off and went to culinary school in 1997.
FWFS: So, what was it that you grew up cooking? What was your favorite kind of food?
Bonnell: My favorite stuff to cook when I was a kid was whatever my brother, dad, and I had gone out and harvested. We were really into hunting and fishing. If we had shot dove or deer or turkeys or we caught fish, that was what we were always begging my dad to get on. “Come on, we’ve got to cook those pheasants. When are we going to do that?” My dad was a really good outdoor cook. He was a kind of “seat of your pants” guy. He’d try to cook a whole pig or he’d just figure out how to do brisket. My mom was a really good cook. If it was in a cookbook, she could create it, so she was more of a classical cook. She had a whole collection of cookbooks from Julia Child’s on. She’d say that if you could point to the picture in the book, she’d be able to figure out how to make it.
FWFS: What kind of food is your passion now?
Bonnell: Man, you name it. I’m into everything food. Of course, my go to is always going to be what I grew up on – the flavors of the southwest. Kind of Tex Mex, southwest, Louisiana – those speak from the heart. But it’s so fun right now in Fort Worth. We’ve got Thai restaurants; we’ve got Indian cuisine. There are so many things that have evolved from a town that used to be pretty monochromatic on the food scene. It’s easier now and much more approachable from a financial standpoint to taste flavors globally.
FWFS: Where do you hope to see Fort Worth’s continued growth from there?
Bonnell: I love to see the expansion. I know that we’re always going to celebrate our chicken fried steak, our Tex Mex, our barbecue, and what we do best. But there’s room for so much and Fort Worth is growing at such a big rate that we’re just going to keep exploding. I can’t imagine the food scene slowing down in any way.
FWFS: What’s something about being a chef that people don’t know or realize?
Bonnell: I don’t think most people realize the hours and the sacrifices you make to be a chef. I don’t mean that in a martyr type of way like woe is me. I love what I do; I can’t complain. But when people say that being a chef sounds fun and they’d love to be a chef, I say to be prepared to give away your Friday and Saturday nights for the foreseeable future. Don’t expect to be free on Valentine’s Day, New Year’s, and all of the other holidays. Get ready to work the opposite hours of everybody else that you know. And if that doesn’t bother you, then okay. Let’s keep talking. It’s hard on family life; it really is. I’ve got little kids, and I’m not home most nights. It’s difficult. It really is. But if you love it, you find a way to make it work.
FWFS: How has your job changed from when you started to now?
Bonnell: When I first opened Bonnell’s in 2001, I spent every waking hour at the restaurant. I was probably doing 80 working hours a week. I was cooking as much as I possibly could. We were constantly working on the menu, keeping the service right, and searching for new products. It was all I could do to run the expo line and prep up during the day. It was as hardcore as could be. Today I find myself a lot more as a restauranteur than a chef. With four locations, I’m bouncing around from place to place. We train people to make sure the food is right. I work on menu and recipe development with them, but I’m not usually in the kitchen as much doing the day-to-day prep and deciding on every single special. I still buy the fish and make sure we’re coming up with the right specials, and whenever we’re changing the menu, I’m directing and making sure that our flavors and concepts are right. But I am not day-to-day running the line any more. I’m bouncing around from place to place as the restauranteur. It’s fun walking from table to table and getting to talk to everybody. That’s something people in the kitchen really miss. You typically only hear what was wrong when you are in the kitchen. But when you are talking to the people at the tables, you hear what they like. That’s a lot of fun for a chef. When you make somebody happy – that’s the whole reason we get into this business.
FWFS: Is there a negative part to not being on the line every night?
Bonnell: There is. I’d love to have more control of everything. I’d love to have five of me. I wouldn’t trade where I am now. I love what I do. But I’d rather have complete control over every aspect of the restaurant. But to be a multi-location chef and restaurant owner, you have to be able to learn to delegate, train, trust, and be able to oversee without micromanaging.
FWFS: You have a seafood restaurant, a farm to table restaurant, and a sports bar restaurant. Which do you find to be the most rewarding?
Bonnell: Oh man, that’s a tough one. Financially, the sports bar is a much easier set of numbers to work with. There’s fewer ingredients, it’s a lot simpler and more formulaic, and my kids love it. We will go to Buffalo Brothers and sit at the table and watch a game really often. They’re not quite ready for that many trips to the fine dining restaurants. The most rewarding…gosh, that is the hardest question in the world. I’d say whatever is the newest. So, the newest right now is the new Buffalo Brothers opening downtown. That’s going to be the most rewarding for a while. I still love my first place. We’re 18 years old, and we keep doing little renovations to update it, but the fine dining, farm-to-table with a Texas ranch feel is still from my heart. The seafood is something that I absolutely love. We play this fish game every day at Water’s. I love them all.
FWFS: You’re a really busy guy. Why did you decide to come on and be a part of Fort Worth Food Stories? What do you hope to get out of this kind of interaction with consumers?
Bonnell: I think what’s fun about being a chef now is that there is a dialogue with a customer that never existed back when I first started – even in the 80s and early 90s. The chef was just this guy that makes magic happen behind that wall and then the food comes out. But now, the kitchen’s open to customers. There’s a dialogue back and forth. And with the internet, and email, websites and blogs, there’s just a great and easy way to communicate with customers. I love that interaction with customers. I think it is just one of the greatest things ever. We give away all of our recipes from all of our restaurants. If somebody emails me, I email back with the recipe and tell them I’m happy they liked it and they should try it at home. I like to keep that dialogue open and keep sharing with customers where we get all of our products. I want people to appreciate what an independent restaurant does and what a chef does for a living. The more we can keep that open is great for everybody. This is just a newer and more up to date method of communication that I think is fun and great and important for the food scene. Let’s keep it up.
For next week’s conversation with Chef Jon Bonnell, you can leave all questions in the comments below or email them to [email protected].