At the Scottsdale Culinary Festival last weekend Chef Jonathon Sawyer of Cleveland’s Greenhouse Tavern confided that he was working on a new project. Sawyer, a member of Food & Wine's 2010 class of Best New Chefs, will be opening Noodlecat, a 60-seat, Japanese, green-certified noodle joint in July around the corner from the Tavern.
If it wasn’t already clear how excited Sawyer is about plans for the new spot (it is) his enthusiasm is evident in this semi-fictional video about Noodlecat’s origin. In it, a cartoon, pig-riding, noodle-moustache-wearing version of Sawyer meets a talking cat who tells the chef that if he can catch him he'll show him where to find the most "slurpalicious" ramen in the world. "Like I'm going to follow you somewhere in the world?" Sawyer asks the cat in disbelief before doing just that.
In the following interview, the chef discusses Noodlecat, his favorite ramen in New York, and Noodlecat's ‘college ramen’ — the new reason to make a Cleveland food-trip this summer.
A new restaurant! Let's talk about Noodlecat.
We’ve been sitting on the space for about five to six months, me and my current partners. We love the location, love being downtown, we really believe in downtown Cleveland. I've lived in New York and just loved eating this quick, healthy phenomenal food that is Japanese food. These are going to be über-basic noodles, with umeboshe tofu, and chilled noodles with tempura on the side. Really simple, healthy, ingredient-driven dishes. I started putting together a menu from books that I’ve been reading forever.
What are your favorite noodle books?
Honestly, my favorite is "Takashi's Noodles," but I also have a bunch of Japanese housewife books, not necessarily in English, and I kind of just like to look through them to see how they cook noodles at home. The second step of this though was to send a bunch of my cooks to trail in restaurants in New York, half of them with the intention of them cooking in the new restaurant, half just so they could have the experience.
So where did they trail?
Noodle Bar. I mean, Chang’s restaurant group is just great. I wanted this group to have a good experience with how they do noodles there. It wasn't really about learning how they do Korean flavors, but about how they do what they do out of such a small space. By the way, those noodles have always been great, but I think they've only gotten better every year. Same with Ssäm Bar, it's gotten more esoteric, a great restaurant — even more solid. Yeah, so I wrote this menu and we sent those boys and girls out to New York to hang out at Takashi and then we’re going to look to open. I haven’t put together a final collaborative menu with my sous-chef yet, but we're close.
That's really cool, how often does that kind of exchange go on?
I wish it happened more often. For us it's also a smart business move. The reality of living in Cleveland is that in the winter when things are slow you have a choice: limit people’s hours, hire seasonally, or you keep cooks and send them to a place to trail. I send them to New York. I rent an apartment on Craigslist for a month and a half to two months, and send our people there. We do about two at a time, and not two at a time at same restaurant. For us it works because some are salaried, some are hourly, and then all we did was pay for the apartment while they're trailing. It has worked out great. And we’ve had people want to do it in return so they can find out what we're doing in Cleveland.