Chef Jonathan Banta is one of the happiest, nicest chefs you will ever meet. Even while wadding in knee-high mud at last year’s Hogs for the Cause event in New Orleans, Banta was as chipper as he could be. This was on very little sleep and after hours of gruesome cooking. It was there that we first took note of this somewhat unknown chef. This “under the radar” description stems from his restaurant’s location, inside the pristine and ultra-lush Kiawah Island Resort. He presides as chef de cuisine at The Atlantic Room at The Ocean Course, a position he has held for over five years.
For this installment of Under the Radar, we share more about this positive, hardworking talented chef as he talks about his career and how he landed a gig cooking barbecue at such a large-scale national event:
Tell us about your background and how you ended up a chef.
Well, I grew up in Pittsgrove, New Jersey, less than an hour outside of Philadelphia and started cooking at the age of 14. I worked at a local summer camp out as a dishwasher. The chef there was a pretty mean guy who liked to yell a lot; one morning around 6 a.m. when I was coming in for my shift, I heard him frantically cursing and yelling, and when I walked around the corner he was the only person in the kitchen. All the cooks had “no called no showed” on him! So it was just me and him cooking for 500 kids. He looked at me and said he had breakfast under control, but I needed to start lunch. I made eggplant Parmesan for 500 kids that day and was hooked after that.
That job spurred my interest in cooking for a living and went on to get my culinary degree at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. I interned at the Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona under the tutelage of Anton Brunbauer, and then moved to Charleston in 1988 to finish school there. While in Charleston, I worked at a variety of kitchens including Kickin’ Chicken, 82 Queen, and in 2001, got the opportunity to work on a 120-foot, live-on-board schooner [chef Banta sailed up a down the northeast teaching kids about the environment and their watershed. He was the cook on the ship and was responsible for the entire crew’s three meals a day on a $5 per person budget; wanting to go back closer to home, he moved to Philadelphia].
Tell us about going back to Philadelphia.
I worked for someone who did not like to pay his line staff any overtime. Since I only worked four days a week, on my days off I worked at a golf course in the morning and tried to moonlight at a different restaurant every week. I had some great opportunities and was able to work with chefs Vetri, Morimoto, Yamaguchi, and Perrier, just to name a few. At that time, Philadelphia was the upcoming culinary place and it made me focus, get grounded, and humbled me. After about three years, my best friend who still lived in Charleston asked me to move back and help him with the food and beverage program at the Links at Stono Ferry in Hollywood, South Carolina. It was only supposed to be a consultant position, but the more I worked the more I realized I loved this city. Banta then went on to work at 39 Rue de Jean and soon opened Vespa, a Neapolitan pizzeria on Daniel Island.
How did you end up working at The Ocean Course?
My son Nathan was born one month after opening Vespa [a Neapolitan pizzeria on Daniel Island, South Carolina] and after seven months of not being at home much I realized I needed a change—I needed to be home more with my family and not in the kitchen every moment of every day. The Ocean Course was hiring at the time and it seemed like a perfect fit. I’ve always wanted to work at a golf course; it always seemed like a dream job to me. I was hired as a lead line cook in 2010 and by 2011 was promoted to chef de cuisine.
What is your favorite dish you’re serving there?
My favorite thing we serve would be anything we get off the docks at nearby Cherry Point, South Carolina. You can see the difference between the fish coming directly off the boat and the seafood provided by our purveyors from afar.
What are you currently most excited about?
Believe it or not, breakfast service! Earlier this month we began “Sunrise at the Ocean Course,” an à la carte breakfast service for golfers and families that’s served from 6:30 to 10 a.m. daily. And of course, I’m looking forward to another PGA Championship; let’s hope we host another one of those again soon.
Anything exciting in store for the future?
Expansion of the resort—new clubhouses, and turf on the golf courses!
How did you get hooked up with cooking at Hogs for the Cause with Home Team BBQ?
[Laughs] This is a good story. When I first moved to Charleston, the first person I met was this girl named Meredith, she soon married Taylor Garrigan’s (executive chef and partner of Home Team BBQ) college roommate who I got to know fairly well. Fast forward 16 years to Taylor’s birthday party, which was a round on The Ocean Course with eight guys. After the round they all came to The Ryder Cup Bar to eat and I joined them. A few bourbons later I found myself in the bathroom with Taylor and he said to me, “I’m started a BBQ Team, want to join?” I said yes immediately with zero hesitation. Two months later we were roasting a hog and the rest is history!
Banta will once again join the boys from Home Team BBQ as they cook in New Orleans at this year’s Hogs for the Cause. We can’t wait to keep tabs on his golf score and what he does next in the kitchen.