You have to appreciate a guy with pigtails, a wide smile, and a gravelly voice who practices hot yoga several times a week and happens to be an award-winning chef at one of Chicago’s swankiest dining spots, Adorn Bar & Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel. Located on the hotel’s seventh floor, Adorn offers a lively bar and dining scene that attracts locals and visitors alike.
And as for the menu…in the words of the city’s namesake hit musical, “Chicago”…Sawyer knows how to “give ’em the old razzle-dazzle.”
Chef Jonathon Sawyer was born in Chicago, grew up in Cleveland, and traveled the world learning and cooking at restaurants. While living in Trentino, he met his wife, Amelia. For several years he owned and operated restaurants in Cleveland that caught the eyes of critics and customers alike and earned him a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Great Lakes Award in 2015.
In October 2020, he returned to Chicago to open Adorn Bar & Restaurant at the recently renovated Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. As Chef de Cuisine, Sawyer has created a globally inspired menu with a nod to the local Midwest bounty.
“Adorn is about embracing beauty and adding the special touch, whether it’s a great bottle of extra-virgin olive oil or glass of wine. For a long time, I took micro-regionalism seriously and learned to appreciate a dish drawn from its terroir. Here in Chicago, with so many international customers, we look at the menu from a global viewpoint based on where I have traveled [including Italy, France, Japan ]- from gîtes and vineyards to restaurants to around the world.”
I sat down with Sawyer during a recent visit to Chicago where we swapped stories about our mutual passion for travel and yoga. There is even a salad on the menu called “Kale and Yoga” – a combination of savory granola, goji berry, sweet potato, cilantro, and mint.
Santé Magazine: Where did you grow up and who/what inspired you to become a chef?
Jonathon Sawyer (JS): “I’d say my mother and grandmother were my direct inspiration for cooking and hospitality. Growing up in the Midwest with a large family (33 first cousins), dinner was a serious expression of care from those wonderful ladies. Keeping a proper garden was a start for my appreciation for fresh flavors and farming. The well-preserved and stocked pantry was a basic building block to our home kitchens, saving every scrap of food for use now or later. They were able to feed 5 – 50 people at any point. Our dinners seemingly appeared out of nowhere and were always delicious and not overly complicated.”
Santé Magazine: Where did you train and who do you consider your mentor/s?
JS: “I started washing dishes and slinging Tex-Mex fare in the wood-fired kitchen at Mad Cactus when I was 13. I thought I just wanted a job to be a teenager and earn some money to buy a car. Little did I know that it would become my career. My mentors are chefs Mike Symon and Charlie Palmer, both phenomenal leaders in new American cuisine. Charlie gave my first “Chef” titled job and we cooked some amazing food together on 22nd Street in NYC. Mike taught me a lot about being an owner-operator and how to get a team to cook food that’s fun and delicious.”
Santé Magazine: You have traveled and worked in Asia and Europe. What are some examples of flavors and/or dishes that inspired you as you shaped your own cooking style?”
JS: “Travel is the best form of inspiration for a lot of careers, and culinary travel has always been a passion of mine, from living in Rome to touring wine country in southern France to making pilgrimages to my wife’s family’s homeland in northern Italy of Trento. I have always traveled with an open journal and an empty stomach, allowing the people and traditions of wherever I find myself to be an inspiration, and coming back to the stove ready to prototype dishes I have just experienced.
“When I talk to the team about a dish, I like to share its origin story—the who, what, where, when, and how of its birth—then talk about how it has evolved over its life, and finally the difference between our dish and the inspiration. This allows the team to hear the whole story and convey an original version to share with our guests.”
Santé Magazine: How would you define your cooking style today?
JS: “Early in my career I wanted to represent regional if not micro-regional food in my restaurants. For example, Trentina was a tasting menu restaurant representing the unique union of the Italian style and Germanic sensibilities of the Nord Tyrol. Nowadays, I like the dish to be reverential to its original expression, but am very comfortable if it’s on a menu next to dishes that aren’t from the same region.
“Prior to Adorn, the driving menu narrative of the last three restaurants I opened were wood-fired and ingredient worship. Being an outdoorsman at heart, there is magic inside the hearth that is undeniable in food. I love a high/low combo like foie gras & clams or truffle & potato chips, juxtaposing luxury with what is considered to be ‘low brow’ food.”
Santé Magazine: What are examples of above in your dishes at Adorn?
JS: “We love to take a dish that’s been ignored for a long time or considered “boring,” and transform it through technique and ingredients. For example, our infamous crispy confit chicken wings require a three-day process akin to a traditional Gascon-style Duck Leg Confit. They are cured overnight, then confited slowly in animal fats, and dried uncovered overnight to create a pellicle (or dry exterior) best for crispy frying. The result is unique, yet recognizable, and often mimicked.”
Santé Magazine: What are your most popular dishes at Adorn?
JS: “The Joe Beef Lobster and Spaghetti
Santé Magazine Cleveland Browns or Chicago Bears – Who are you rooting for?
“Absolutely a Browns fan over everything. Cleveland is title starved, and until that parity is closer, I have to root for CLE. Let’s Go Super Browns Super Bowl!!”
Adorn Bar & Restaurant is open daily for breakfast, bar bites and dinner, lunch Monday through Friday, and weekend brunch. www.adornrestaurant.com
Featured photo: Trout Roe Smorrebrod with dill pollen, clotted creme fraiche, and PQB seeded cracker.
Recipe for Joe Beef Lobster and Spaghetti– Adorn Bar & Restaurant, Chicago
10 oz dried bucatini pasta
1/4 cup crispy bacon lardons
1 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves
1 whole lobster tail, claw, and knuckles (trimmed and split, shell on)
1 ½ cup cognac cream lobster broth
1 tbsp butter
Salt to taste
1 tsp cognac
Cognac Cream Lobster Broth
1 lobster body (aka torso) and all shell trimmings
2 cups water
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tbsp cognac
Salt to taste
Cognac Cream Lobster Broth
Prepare your lobster. Cleave off knuckles, claws, and tails all separately and split the body, and clean thoroughly (remove and reserve the tomalley).
Blanch the lobster meat first (2 minutes for knuckles, 4 minutes for tail, 7 minutes for claw) and shock cool them in ice water or freezer.
Remove knuckle entirely from the shell. Leave approximately 40% of the bottom shell on and tail (cut in half and remove all flippers, cut across the bottom of tail & remove vein). Reserve for pasta.
In a stainless steel pan, over high heat, add butter, salt, and shells. Sauté covered until all are cooked and red, approximately 5 minutes.
Add the cognac and reduce by 3/4.
Add the cream and water and bring to a boil. Maintain a medium-high temperature to a simmer for 15 minutes, to reduce by half and yield 1 cup for the pasta sauce.
Strain through a fine mesh, blend, and taste for seasoning.
Add lobster meat, cover, and keep warm.
Place pasta in salted boiling water for 13 minutes or until appropriate doneness is achieved.
Strain pasta and toss the warm lobster meat and cream, stirring over low heat to combine. Add half of the tarragon and bacon, along with all of the cognac and butter.
Taste for seasoning.
Plate and garnish with the bacon, tarragon, lobster claw, and tail.