Transcribed by James Creange.
Photos by Kelcey Harris.
Chef Jon Bonnell loves to stay in touch with the people that dine at his restaurant, so he will be answering Fort Worth Food Stories reader’s questions every month. To submit your question, leave a comment on this post or send an email to [email protected].
Reader Question: I am a big fan of Bonnell’s. I’ve eaten at restaurants all over the world that have been Michelin star rated, but yours is still my favorite in ALL THE WORLD. I take all of my employees and family there for special occasions. Can we purchase the same local ingredients that you use at Bonnell’s for our home use? Do you provide a list of the places you go to for your ingredients?
Jon Bonnell: First of all, that’s very flattering. Thank you. The answer is yes, we do. We will definitely give you all of the recipes for free for everything we make. I will also give you all of the sources that we use. For example, if you like the quail, I will send you to Diamond H Ranch which is in Bandera. They will mail order, and they can send directly to you. If there’s a special fish that you like – if it was season for red snapper and halibut, I would say that I bought that from Seafoods.com in Florida. I will tell you who sells directly, or in some cases, if you wanted, we might also be able to just sell you the products through the restaurant. We are absolutely an open book. We have a “no secrets” policy from recipes to sources.
RQ: You said last month that guacamole was your favorite snack. Do you have a go to recipe for it or do you just buy it at the store?
JB: My favorite way to do guacamole, and obviously there’s lots of ways to do it. We put three different recipes in our second cookbook. Personally, my favorite way is to take garlic, jalapeno, lime juice, and lots of salt and purée that in a blender. Vitamix is your best one for that, but any blender is fine. Just give it a full out purée, and you can add in a little bit of diced tomato. The tomato is a nice way to balance the guac if it is very creamy. There are plenty of other ways to do it where you’re going to add diced onion and lemon or lime juice. One of the ways to get really complex with it is to roast tomatoes and roast hatch chiles and then mash it all together. It’s a little more rustic, and you get those burned skins on it. My favorite way though is that purée. I also like to add fresh cilantro to it. My wife’s a hater, so I always leave the cilantro out. But if I do it with cilantro, I purée that in there too.
For what to eat the guac with, I’m a corn chip guy. If I’m buying at the store, I’m a Tostito’s man. But otherwise, we’re buying corn tortillas and frying them fresh. If you ever have a chance, go to Fiesta and take a look at the tortilla section. If you have no clue, ask someone which are the best for chips. Whether you want the lightest or the darkest one – these are important things to know. The difference in tortillas is vast. Some are best for flautas or for an enchilada, and some are amazing for chips. It’s good to find your own brand that you like. There’s nothing like a freshly fried and salted tortilla chip with guac – absolute perfection.
RQ: When you are changing up the menu, what is your process for picking and creating new items?
JB: So, for the seasonal menu, we never know where it’s going to start. It may be that one of our local purveyors has a new product. We’ve got one farmer we work with that will say, “By the way, I’m doing pheasants for the next several months.” We hear this and then add it to the menu. Anytime there’s a new product and there’s a local guy, I want to try to do something with it.
Typically, it starts with something that’s inspired by a season or a specific ingredient. Oh, it’s halibut season in Alaska? It’s spring and the Kobe are going to start running? Stone crabs are in season? Actually, stone crab season starts October 15 which I think is intentional to celebrate my birthday. It always has to do with seasonal and local farmers and what they have. Once we nail down what we’re in the mood to cook – butternut squash for example – then we can base something on that.
RQ: When is the last time you burned something you cooked at home?
JB: Oh, last time I burned something at home? [laughs] It’s been awhile. Actually, the worst was when I threw something in the oven, and I started smelling the burn. They trained us in culinary school how to start smelling the burn; you immediately jump up and run and go find it. I pulled it out, and the weird thing is, it was fine. I put it back in the over, and after I pulled it out the second time, I realized that something that I had cooked earlier in the week had spilled as I had taken it out. Luckily, the burn smell was not what was actually cooking at the time, but man it stunk the kitchen up so bad. It was a spill from previous though, so it doesn’t count! We don’t really say burn – we just say over-caramelized. It doesn’t count as a mistake until you serve it to somebody and try to charge them for it.
RQ: Do you have any fun Halloween themed food that you like to make?
JB: We’ve got this brain mold, so I always like to make a Jell-O. I’ll make a peach Jell-O and put a little condensed milk in it so that it actually looks like a pretty nasty dish. We’ve got cookies that we can make that look like pretty gross band-aids. We’ll put a little blood coloring on there. I usually make a dip that we call “boogers and brains,” and that’s like a spinach and artichoke dip. When people come over to our house for Halloween, we’re going to theme it out for them. We’ve got a whole skeleton that we lay on the table. We’ll put a thing of guac in the middle of it so that it’ll look like some nastiness. Yeah, we like to make stuff fun for our friends.
RQ: I was at the Fort Worth Top Chef competition that you hosted in September. What’s the process like putting together that event and how much fun do you have up on stage? It looks like you’re having a blast.
JB: The Top Chef competition from my perspective is the most fun thing ever. For the four competitors that get invited, it’s the most stressful thing in the world. They’re up there with all of these ingredients, and they have no idea what they’re going to do. They also know that I’m going to make something really challenging for them. They’re going to have a time limit, and the cameras are on them the whole time. There’s a roving camera that will be right over their shoulder focused on the cutting board. We don’t normally cook in front of people as a show, so it can be tough.
One of the competitions that I’ve put together is called “Thinking on your Feet” where they’ll each grab a bag. One will have meats in it. One will have vegetables. They’ll grab one of each, then a brined item, a fruit, and a nut. They’re grabbing them out of paper bags, so they don’t even see what they’re picking up. They have five ingredients that they have to base a full dish on in 9 minutes of cooking time, and then at the last second, I’ll have everyone pass an ingredient they dislike to the left and then their full bag of ingredients to the right. Now they have a whole new bag of ingredients, and the time starts right then. For them, it’s really tough, but for me it’s a blast. I want it to be really fun for the audience too.
It has to be challenging for these chefs. We can’t just have them cooking eggs over easy because the audience knows how to make that too. Doing it this way, the audience really gets the idea that these chefs are incredibly talented.
They all had to butcher whole rabbits at the end. Their secret ingredients were whole rabbits, scallops, and a Cornish game hen. They had 25 minutes to make a fine dining dish with all three of them. The competition is something that I absolutely love. We try to make it a great time. We let the champion from last year give away the trophy to the new champion. Next year, we’ll probably have another tournament of champions. We’ll pick past winners to go and compete. The trophy for that is a huge wrestling title belt. We’ve had one of those so far, but every two to three years we’ll pull one of them off going forward. I can’t wait. And, because most of the chefs have seen the show or been there once or twice, I keep having to come up with new ideas. I’ll poach a lot of these from TV shows or videos, but it has to be something that they’re not quite expecting.