5 Questions with DC’s Street Chef and Cookbook Author Jonathan Bardzik
Jonathan Bardzik spends a lot of time cooking on the street.
“I’m used to doing these demos out in the hot sun, so I know I’d only have 20 minutes of your attention, tops,” he told a crowd of people at a demo at last weekend’s Rhode Island Spring Flower & Garden Show. “This is going to be quick and easy—this is Tuesday night food.”
As he spoke, Jonathan casually flipped a saucepan full of yellow, red, and purple carrots. I’m always tired of root vegetables by this time of year, but the apricot jam, chili flake, and chopped shallots hitting the pan had us all lining up like children at recess.
I sat down with Jonathan after his demo to talk about why he has done over 150 live cooking demonstrations with local food, the advantages of being a self-trained chef, and his new cookbook Seasons to Taste: Farm Fresh Joy for Kitchen and Table.
So Jonathan, what do you do and why?
Four and a half years ago, looking for the next big adventure in my life, I started doing live cooking demos at a historic farm market in Washington DC and it has become my full-time career. So I get up in front of people, live audiences every chance I get, cook with farm fresh, seasonal ingredients and talk about easy cook-at-home food.
I think food and cooking it and sharing it with people can bring so much joy to our lives. It’s the way we connect and build the important relationships in our life.
And I love the fact that food is such a way of leveling society—that everyone out there has a way of treating themselves and the people they love well, just by preparing a simple meal, setting a table and sharing it there.
You’re a self-trained home cook. What has that taught you about food?
What you get from a formal culinary education is a way of looking at food and recipes. You learn building blocks of technique, you learn mother sauces and master recipes and you build on those. And starting as a home cook, I just dove into recipes and it took me 15 years to make all of those connections.
I think all of the information available on TV and the internet has us believing that everything from cooking to gardening has to be done perfectly, every time. And I think we’re not having as much fun as we should be because of that. So the advantage and what I try to communicate when I’m talking to audiences is: you have the skills right now today—regardless of what you know—to go in the kitchen, have fun, and feel good about the meal you’re providing to the people that you’re serving it to. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and you should have fun doing it.
The recipes in Seasons to Taste are organized by season. What ingredients do you look forward to cooking with each season?
I think celery root is probably my favorite winter ingredient. Or turnips—nobody likes them because all they’ve eaten are bad storage turnips from the grocery store. I have a friend who has a farm down in Maryland and we’d pull them out of the ground and eat them like apples—they’re so sweet and crisp.
Spring for me is definitely all about asparagus. Fresh out-of-the-ground asparagus for 6 weeks in the spring is magic.
Summer is bright, fresh, it’s such a ridiculous bounty—cucumbers, summer squash, tomatoes—it’s just endless.
Fall, I love pumpkins. I make everything from pumpkin pancakes to pumpkin beef stew. And those bright orange things that are on the front porch should stay there. They’re terrible to cook with. But all these great, fun, funky heirlooms—from the football shaped Blue Hubbards to the bright red Cinderella pumpkins—have great flavors and are great cooking pumpkins.
What common concerns do you hear from people about cooking with local produce? What’s your advice for them?
The two most common things I hear are: 1) I need a recipe to cook and 2) I need to plan my menu out for the week.
And what I’ve learned in shopping at a farmers’ market is that the best experience you have is if you go in, you talk to the farmers, see what looks best, bring the best looking stuff home, and figure out your menu from there. And I think that represents a real shift for people.
How do you do it? I think you start by buying ingredients you’re familiar with and turning them into recipes that you’re already comfortable with. Then I read 5 new recipes and substitute like crazy. There is no reason why we can’t easily say, “Well there weren’t any good onions, or it’s way too early for fresh garlic at the market. But garlic scapes showed up this week, so I can add that in or I can just use some shallot instead.”
What would be your dream place to live, where you could eat, cook and grow locally?
One of the things I’ve really found that I love and I think that would guide where I live, whether it’s the South of France or southern Massachusetts down near Buzzards Bay, is having small producers who are more likely to be making interesting choices about the varieties they’re growing. They know which carrot is going to do really well in New England (versus Florida) and they’re growing that.
I think we’ve gotten so used to thinking of food as commodities and it’s not. You cannot get a good Macintosh apple outside of New England because you need the cold nights that we have. And a good New England Macintosh apple is probably the best apple in the world as far as I’m concerned! But down in DC, I don’t even think about them when I see them out on the shelves, I’ll go get a Stayman or an Empire.
Hungry tonight? Try Jonathan’s Apricot Chili Glazed Carrots.