Tom Klare

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Kitchen “Coffee”

Jacqueline Sainsbury - October 2013

Cleveland—Ah, the oft-underappreciated and much-burdened line cook. While paying dues in sweat equity—often with naught but personal pride in one’s work and the golden carrot of knowledge and promotion—the disparity in wages between front- and back-of-the-house continues to gnaw. Having been there/felt that, and knowing that the quotidian carrot usually takes the shape of a can of beer, chef Jonathon Sawyer gave his unique nod of appreciation to the staff when he took on the top post as chef/owner of Greenhouse Tavern in 2008.

“The idea was inspired from Paul Kahan, at trailblazing Publican,” says Sawyer, of his time working under the Chicago–based chef. “The name came from when another chef, Brian Goodman, and I would have our post–service wine in coffee mugs.”

And so, a year after Sawyer opened the Tavern, out came “Kitchen Coffee” on the menu, allowing customers to order a round of drinks for the back-of-the-house staff. For about the price of an extra appetizer on the bill ($10), the table parades their tin tokens of appreciation through the restaurant and into the kitchen, announcing their intent with handbells ringing full tilt while a resounding response of yells and a boisterous clamor of banging pots and pans bursts out from the kitchen. “It’s just a great way to positively reward all of our extremely hardworking chefs, dishwashers, porters, runners, and expediters on a daily basis,” Sawyer says.

The Cleveland native’s laissez-faire vibe dissembles the enterprising gears grinding away nonstop beneath his trucker’s hat and beard. At 33 years old, Sawyer owns six restaurants (including two NoodleCats as well as See-Saw Pretzel Shoppe and Sawyer’s Street Frites at the Cleveland Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium), with an Italian on the way to be named Trentina, after his wife who is “a woman from Trent.” He has 10 beers available, and is working on about eight wines as well as several malts (for Sawyer, this means taking on everything, down to the mashing process and using only certified organic and kosher products).

Back at Greenhouse Tavern, Sawyer brought almost all of the production in-house excepting only three breads. Perhaps taking the term a bit too literally, until last month, that also meant 700 gallons of vinegar (in 23 varieties) fermenting away in Sawyer’s home basement. (They’ve now been relocated and will be sold nationally next month as Tavern Vinegar.)

So while the chef marches ever on, his support brigade is sure to appreciate the cold, crisp gesture at the end of the day. Thankfully, although the average round is a six-pack, the kitchen crew is never gifted fewer than four or five rounds a night. And in the winter, when seating opens at an enormous butcher’s table in the kitchen, things can get much more lively.

“I’ve seen bidding wars start,” says Sawyer. “I think the record may be when 25 rounds were bought by a customer. One time, Paul Kahan came by, and he was so delighted to see it on the menu that he bought the crew a bottle of Willett Single Barrel Bourbon.” Enjoyed after cleandown, of course…