Chef Jonathon Sawyer puts down roots in Cleveland Heights
At 33 years old, Cleveland Heights resident Jonathon Sawyer, the chef and owner of the Greenhouse Tavern and other Cleveland-area restaurants, has been involved in the food industry for almost two decades.
Sawyer, who was born in Chicago and moved to Strongsville when he was in first grade, got his first restaurant job when he was 13. “I wanted to get a job, and my older brother was working at a restaurant in Strongsville called Mad Cactus, so I applied and started out as a dishwasher,” he said. “But within six months I was cooking.”
Sawyer graduated from Strongsville High School and decided to attend the University of Dayton to study industrial engineering, despite his love of cooking. “During my sophomore year, we had to go out and work a trial job,” he said. “So I started working at this engineering firm in Dayton, and I just couldn’t do it.” He left Dayton and began studying at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh. After graduating, he got a job at the Biltmore Hotel in Miami. In 2002 he moved again, this time to New York City, where he began working at Kitchen 22 with Chef Charlie Palmer.
When Sawyer and his wife, Amelia, were about to have their first child, they decided to come back to Cleveland. Palmer had introduced him to Michael Symon, and Sawyer became the chef de cuisine at Symon’s restaurant, Lolita, in Tremont. A Greek investor then convinced Symon and Sawyer to open a modern Greek restaurant in New York City, so Sawyer moved back to New York, where he became executive chef at Parea. The restaurant received a two-star review in The New York Times and five stars from Time Out New York. In 2007, when he and his wife had their second child, they came back to Cleveland.
The first restaurant Sawyer opened here was Bar Cento, on West 25th Street in Ohio City, in partnership with Sam McNulty. The following year, in 2008, he opened the Greenhouse Tavern on East Fourth Street, downtown. The restaurant’s menu is patterned after a French bistro, and virtually all of the food comes from within 50 miles of Cleveland. Also significant is that virtually everything in the restaurant is made from recycled materials, and it was the first restaurant certified green in Ohio. Sawyer was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2010, and Greenhouse was named the Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit magazine in 2009.
Sawyer has since opened two Noodlecat restaurants, one on Euclid Avenue just down the street from Public Square and one at the West Side Market. He is also planning to open a new Northern Italian restaurant called Trentina. He would not disclose the location, but said he is hoping to have it open by next year.
Despite all of his restaurant work, Sawyer loves his family life. He lives on Kenilworth Road near Euclid Heights Boulevard, not far from Michael Symon and another Cleveland Heights chef, Doug Katz. He moved here from Shaker Heights a little over a year ago, and said he loves what Cleveland Heights has to offer. “It’s the only pedestrian neighborhood that the East Side has,” Sawyer said. “You don’t need to use a car. We can bike up to Lee Road or down to Little Italy, and we can walk to Coventry or Cedar Fairmount.” In fact, Sawyer no longer has a car. He prefers to bike downtown to his restaurants, though he recently bought a motorcycle that he can also use.
His favorite neighborhood restaurants include Tommy’s and Vero Bistro. He also loves the Grog Shop and the new Phoenix Coffee shop on Coventry, and he considers On the Rise to be the best bakery in Ohio.
Catcher, Sawyer's son, is now eight, and Lousiana, his daughter, is six. “We love to do activities based on food and the arts,” he said. “We go to the art museum, MOCA, Severance Hall. We just love doing those kinds of things.” Sawyer has two dogs—Potato, 10, and Vito, 11—and also keeps chickens. In addition to opening his new restaurant, Sawyer plans to release a new book next year. It’s called Noodle Kids, and it’s about families cooking together.
James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 15 years. He is also the author of several books, including biographies of Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bob Marley.