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Interview with Executive Chef Jonathan Till

Jordan Wright
March 6, 2019
Photo credit – Jordan Wright

Last October Jonathan Till arrived at Del Ray’s Evening Star to take over as Executive Chef in a restaurant that has been successful serving a mostly local clientele for over two decades and seen its share of chefs.  It’s also seen its ups and downs.

Evening Star Executive Chef Jonathan Till

Till brought with him a wealth of experience from his education at the New England Culinary Institute and an internship at L’Espalier in Boston, where he trained under James Beard Award winning chef, Frank McClelland.  From there he received an Associates’ Degree in Culinary Arts in 2008 and learned pastry under Certified Master Pastry Chef, Frank Vollkommer, at the Saratoga National Golf Course.

Locally, Till spent two years at William Jeffery’s Tavern, a neighborhood joint featuring pub food, followed by two years as a corporate chef for the Barteca Restaurant Group before they were bought out by Del Frisco’s for a cool $325M.

Before all that, he’d taken a turn or two in fine dining (two months spent picking shells out of crabmeat in a dark room at The Dabney was not to his liking) and farm-to-table.  As it turns out, connecting with farmers and growers seemed to suit him far better.  At the casual Beekman Street Bistro in Saratoga Springs, New York’s tony arts district he’d enjoyed relationships with local Mennonite farmers, and at the five-star Hermitage Hotel in Nashville he was able to source many of his ingredients from their historic vegetable gardens and private cattle farm.

Till’s curiosity peaked when right out of culinary school he met an old trapper and farmer who taught him how to forage in the wild.  He’d come from generations of home canners and wanted to preserve the bounty he culled from the fields and forests.  After that auspicious meeting, he began making his own charcuterie and experimenting with wildcrafting and homesteading techniques including learning the pleasures of tapping maple syrup.  When I spoke to Till this March, he had just returned from ice fishing in Canada.  This week he’ll present Evening Star’s new Spring menu incorporating wild-foraged stinging nettles, garlic mustard greens, and spring garlic.  Ramps will appear on the menu in a few weeks.  All in due time.

Having seen the Spring menu there are a lot of dishes I’m looking forward to – duck with Virginia buckwheat honey, foraged greens, glazed black soybeans and wild garlic and an inspired dish of American snapper with fava beans, asparagus, morels and uszka dumplings.  A planned dessert, Strawberry and Rhubarb Galette with lightly churned cream, sounds positively irresistible.

Who inspired your interest in cooking?

My grandmother was my mentor.  She is a third-generation chef in the family who had four or five restaurants.  Other family members worked in restaurants too – uncles and aunts – and my mom was a café owner at one time, so my path was pretty much set for me.

Will you be involved in the local farming community?

I’ve been working with Pam Hess the Executive Director at Arcadia [Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture] where I’m learning about what’s grown in Virginia.  Next year we will set out a foraging walk to tie into permaculture.  I’m very passionate about teaching and educating people and hope to make an impact.

What’s different about the food at Evening Star [ES] since you’ve been there?  

Neighborhood Restaurant Group as a whole is going through an overhaul and there are big changes at their other restaurants, like Vermillion and Hazel.  The company reviewed their image and went out to pick some of the best chefs they could find.

Describe your style.

How I cook for Evening Star is how I eat home.  I want warm, comforting dishes and some lighter things too.  When I was approached by ES I was out picking mushrooms.  I had just returned from a trip to Europe where I was eating my way around the Continent with my wife and foraging for mushrooms in the Czech Republic.

Till’s favorite hori hori knife for wildcrafting

Foraging is a huge part of what I do.  I go into the woods and get it for free.  This summer I established relationships with local farmers and developed a good connection with them.  Since I am new to the area, I had to find spots to go foraging.  ES has a rooftop garden, but it only has six inches of soil.  We have to get the soil up there using ropes and a bucket.  It’s very intense.  This winter I set up some grow lights in the basement and started growing microgreens when a supplier wanted to charge me $100 a flat!

I’m using heirloom seeds from Monticello [Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville is a World Heritage Site] where they have a program called the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.  They will be using 800 acres of their property just for heirloom crops.

What ingredients have you foraged recently? 

I found spring garlic while foraging last week and caught lake trout while ice fishing in Canada.

Are you cautious not to overharvest?

I only harvest one third of what I find.  I learned my lesson years ago when I picked all the chanterelles from one patch and it took five years for them to come back!

What’s the most popular dish you can’t take off the menu? 

Acorn pasta made with flour from acorns I foraged, has been really popular.  Unfortunately, I’m out of the acorns for now.  Also, guests seem to not get enough of chicory – brined and seared with black pepper and served with a side of kombucha squash and sage.  The pork chop schnitzel and gumbo are favorites now too, and the sea bass served with clams and broccolini.

Sea bass with clams and broccolini at Evening Star

I had the sea bass the other night and it was perfectly prepared with a crisped skin and tender flesh.

It’s important to understand what goes into raising or catching food.  I have raised animals and farmed before and it bothers me when people don’t respect the protein.

What do you see as the future of Evening Star?

I’m still getting used to the flow.  Seeing how the summer is going to be when we open the patio.  The balance is going to be interesting.  I plan to be at the farm and continue foraging this summer.  Next year I’ll know exactly what to expect.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.   

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