Jonathan Harootunian

Harvest Room

06/26/2015

Jonathan Harootunian is the chef at Harvest Room in Palos Heights.

You have a long history in the kitchen. When did your career begin?

When I was twenty-one I took a job in a kitchen to make money for a fender-bender that I had gotten into. Prior to that I had been doing some heavy-duty, artistic woodworking. No experience, nothing. Just green, greener than it is outside. That was 1981. And here I am.

It took a few years for me to let it sink in that it’s an artform. In the mid ‘80s I ended up at a couple places called Tallgrass and the Public Landing in Lockport. That was the proverbial frying pan hitting me in the head, where I went, “Wow, this stuff is gorgeous. This is what I like.” Over the course of the years I’ve been able to hone my craft and develop a singular style. I always tell the younger generation you have to have a foundation, you have to understand the basics and you have to have technique, which all stems from more classical French and Italian.

You have to know that before you can shoot off to the moon and do these unique, individualistic dishes. I did all that. I went through it all. And every day, for me, is a learning day. You can learn something new from anybody and everybody around you. There are a lot of egocentric, driven chefs and restaurants out there, but I gotta tell you at the end of the day we’re making snacks for people. Be it breakfast, lunch, dinner or artistic food, it’s okay to take yourself seriously, and  it’s okay to take your craft seriously. But you also have to cut a little sense of humor into it. You have to realize people are gonna make mistakes, and you have to have a good time. It’s like anything in life: why do it if you don’t enjoy it? And for me, this is what I’m wired to do.

Are you originally from Chicago?

New York State, originally. But my father taught Japanese history all around the United States and went to Tokyo and Kyoto to write a book, so a lot of the Japanese mentality and sensibility of the way they approach food comes through in the way I think about food.

When did you end up here?

In the early ‘70s my dad took a position to teach at the University of Chicago. We had come from a small town outside of Rochester, New York, a very serene, small, quiet neighborhood. We moved to the big city and that was a huge culture shock. It was a real awakening. But since then I’ve been here. This is where home is.

Why do you think restaurants like Tallgrass, Courtright’s, and now Harvest Room are successful in the southwest suburbs?

Our mentality is to try to offer the same experience one would have if they were dining downtown. And that’s what I believe Tallgrass and Courtright’s were trying to do too. Tallgrass has been there since 1985 and is still going strong. Talking about Courtright’s, they had been getting really good reviews but I was able to ratchet it up when I became chef there in October of 2002. I remember talking to Bill Courtright after Phil Vettel indicated he completed a review and I said, “There’s no way we’re gonna get four stars.” Well, we got four stars and it blew me away. They recently closed and good for them, they rode all the way to the top and that’s when you say: okay, time to enjoy our life.

Here at Harvest Room, it’s the commitment to quality: grass-fed, grass-finished meat, locally-sourced produce. All the grains that come in are organic. We do everything from scratch here. I think that type of commitment sets us apart. We’re doing things here that nobody’s doing in this area. That was one of the things that really attracted me to this restaurant, and it’s been a hundred percent true. I admire and respect our owners, Carri and Christ Sirigas, for sticking to their guns. In the ‘burbs you find more of the corporate restaurants that are just slammin’ busy day in and day out. You go there, you grumble through a meal. That’s what it is, and that’s ok too, right? Not everybody can be… for lack of a better word adventurous, and it’s taken me a long time to realize that some people don’t even care about what they eat.

Sure you can go downtown and see it. But where we are? That is part of the brand, what makes this place unique. First and foremost we do a bangin’ business for breakfast and lunch. It’s good, it’s straightforward, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And then at dinner, it’s two-part. Some of the menu is very straightforward, because we have to appeal to everybody. The other half of the menu is exceedingly humorous, it’s ambitious, and it’s not afraid to take challenges. We just got reviewed from Phil Vettel last month and we got three stars. And you know what, that’s outstanding.

How do you build the menu?

Over the course of my experiences, I’ve realized that when I design dishes for the menu sometimes less is more. When I was a lot younger… it’s a confidence thing, you want to throw a billion things in there. I don’t need to be that way any more. That’s what I teach my cooks.

I’ll work with the owners and have them give me a slate of the proteins that they want to keep on the menu, then I’ll tweak those proteins. Example: we have an Amish airline chicken breast on the menu now with sauteed kale, fingerling potato confit, apple cider reduction sauce. For the spring and summer I’m gonna lighten it up. I’m gonna leave the chicken on, pan roasted, do braised organic baby carrots with it, a little dark chicken stock flavored with organic honey and thyme, with waffle potato chips. Make it a little lighter.

Certain things I’m not gonna change. Chicken and waffles, why would I change it? It’s not about me, right? It’s about what our customers like, what they expect when they come here.

You offer a lot of gluten-free and vegetarian dishes. Why do you take the extra time to add these to the menu?

A part of the dining environment has taken a very proactive approach to it. Two years ago I went to LA and I did a three-week pop-up at an all-vegan, vegetarian restaurant. I would go down to the Santa Monica produce market every morning, and the same mentality applies here. It doesn’t have to be a mediocre plate of vegetables. These people need to eat too.

We want to make it exciting. Right now for a vegetarian entrée we’re doing a maple syrup braised butternut squash and green beans with organic maitake mushrooms, powdered olive oil, and little cubes of sherry vinegar. That’s your vinaigrette. For whatever reasons, this is the direction some people have chosen to pursue in terms of their dining habits and we have to rise to that occasion.

Why is working with local purveyors important?

I’m in the process of developing relationships with a couple of farmers. We use Richert/Phillips Farms in northern Indiana, and Zeldenrust Farms in Chicago Heights. All of our chicken is from Miller Farms in Indiana. It’s Amish. The bison we use is from Indiana. We use Strauss Farms up in Wisconsin.  It’s important to develop good relations, and determine the best way to utilize what they have. It’s all natural, it’s organic, you’re helping them to sustain their life and they’re in return helping you to put out a product which is better for people at the end of the day.

We’ve been going down to the farmer’s markets, but being that we’re having the wettest summer known to man here, we’re not coming up with much stuff. But I wouldn’t hesitate to go down there and say: look at these beautiful torpedo onions, I’m gonna do this, that, and this with it. There’s never a shortage of how to utilize stuff, what to do with it. But the pride factor should be there: we’re giving people a really great, quality product, it’s healthier for them, it’s better for them, it’s better for the ecology, it’s all natural, those are the important things.

How do you balance your desire to go local and organic with the practical demands of the restaurant?

Would I love to bring in some beautiful halibut at $20 a pound? Morel mushrooms that are picked a hundred miles from here at about $30 a pound? Yeah. But do I? No. Because at the end of the day we’re a business too, and we have to watch out and keep control of the bottom line. So it’s a juggling act, it’s a balance.

I read something when I was younger, and I’m going to do my best to quote it for you. I think it was something Jean-Louis Palladin said: anybody can do a great meal with luxurious ingredients, foie gras, truffles, lobster. But it takes a really good cook to take the simple ingredients and elevate those. That mantra is also part of the way I think too, you know? I get these beautiful beets, I can do a beet puree, shaved beets, highlight that with a nice piece of fish. We work within our limitations.

You joined Harvest Room after the restaurant had been open for a while. How did you merge your vision with that of ownership?

Prior to accepting a position here, I did my homework. Is this guy the right guy for us? Am I the right one for them? I did a lot of reading, and a lot of follow-up on the reviews, so I had a fairly good idea of who they were and what they wanted to do. I realized that the opportunities here are limitless.

I came in and I cooked for them. And I spared no expense, and I really threw out some interesting dishes. I did three-dimensional soy sauce with finger limes and tuna, a nod to a Japanese dish. They were user-friendly but with interesting ingredients, technique and a multitude of other ranges and flavor components, salty, sweet, crunchy, so on and so forth. I said, “That’s what I want to do here with and for you guys. Mentally take a picture of that. This is the way I’m wired to think about food.”

It’s not that I gotta do this because I need to prove myself. Been there, done that. I’m a little more mature. I’m not one of these chefs that comes out to the dining room and walks around and parades like a peacock. I’m in the back in the trenches, cussing and sweating and putting out the food. That’s where I need to be. But I want everyone to be happy, I want the owners to be pleased, I want the waitstaff to enjoy and have pride in what they sell. And I want our clientele to come back and say, “I had the chicken and waffles and it was delicious. But you know what, I think I’m gonna try the sliced swordfish with citrus gnocchi and dehydrated cardamom yogurt.”

Furthermore, I want to give it all back to the younger generation. I want to teach them, I want to mentor them, I want to motivate them, and I want them to realize, “Oh shit, I’ve got my whole life ahead of me, I better scribble down notes and learn.” I’ve got a day crew that are very solid, and I’ve got a night crew that’s a little younger, a little more food-orientated, and they are the ones where I say, “You know what, Liz, make me a souffle. Let’s run a souffle this weekend.” [snaps fingers] “Gimme something. The flavor is great, but it’s too thick. Let’s thin it out, find a way, make it lighter so it rises.”

Is culinary school a necessary step for young cooks to take?

I think the answer’s fairly evident for me: you get in the trenches. If you want to go to school, you can go to the School of Hard Knocks. That’s the only way to learn. Cooking schools, are they good? Yes. Can you get your foot in the door? Yes. Will you still start at the bottom? Absolutely, positively, of course you will. With no disrespect to schools, they’re gonna teach you the basic techniques, but they’re also gonna fill your head with these ideas: “When I graduate I’m gonna go make $150k, work forty hours a week, golf, and go on vacation.”

It doesn’t work that way. It takes years and years and years to get to where you want to go, and you can never lose sight of it. That’s what I try to instill in my staff. One of my sous chefs is a younger man, he’s twenty-five. I’m twice his age. He’s got talent. And I recognize that, I use him for that, and tell him: “Peter, you’re an open book with me, man. But you also need to pick up the little bits and pieces of things that you don’t want to hear me say. Take heed of that, otherwise you will not be an effective manager.”

In this industry you gotta manage people, good cop, bad cop, psychologists, policeman, ringleader, class clown--- you gotta be everything to everybody, every day, all at the same time.

At the end of the day, why do you think you keep coming back to the southwest suburbs?

For two reasons. First of all, this opportunity was too good to be true. Second of all, I’ve had--- knock on wood--- good successes in the southwest suburbs. Why ruin a good thing? On some levels I’m a very competitive person, but on other levels I’m really not. I’m not interested in going downtown and having to flex my muscles like Popeye and prove myself to this guy or that guy, I don’t want to do that.

I want to do good food. I want to teach people, I want our clientele to like what we’re doing. I’m not getting any younger, but at the end of the day when I walk out of here I say, “You know what? That was good, and I’m happy.” The owners are very, very supportive people--- and they’re nice people. That’s hard to find in this industry. With no disrespect to the other restaurateurs out there, I find myself being a magnet to that. I want to work with people that I like and respect. Where the feeling is reciprocated.

So damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead, we’re gonna take it as far as we can.

Harvest Room