Now that the list of Eater Young Guns semi-finalists has been released, it's time to get to know these rising stars. Check this space for regular introductions to each of the 50 semi-finalists and tune in on June 24 to find the list of winners.
At age 19, Johnny Ortiz, Eater's youngest Young Guns semi-finalist, landed a commis position at one of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, Chicago's Alinea. Within 16 months he was promoted to morning manager and then to chef de partie. He left Chicago for The Willows Inn in Washington to cook under Food & Wine Best New Chef and recent James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year winner Blaine Wetzel.
All along, Ortiz had his sights set on Saison, the San Francisco pop-up turned two Michelin star restaurant known for its exceptional (and exceptionally pricey) tasting menus. At age 21, as Saison chef Joshua Skenes hired additional talent for the relocated Saison 2.0, Ortiz moved to San Francisco hoping to join the team. And he did as meat cook. Now, at age 23, he's sous chef at one of the country's most exciting prix fixe restaurants, one that was voted Restaurant of The Year 2013 here on Eater, and an eatery that employs a unique layout with no separation between its kitchen and 18-seat dining room. Below, Ortiz talks about cooking at Alinea versus Saison.
How long have you worked in the restaurant industry? I've been working in restaurants since I was about 15. My family kinda owned a diner back home [Taos, New Mexico], and so I started working there in high school as a bus boy for quite a while and slowly transitioned into the kitchen.
How did you get hired by Alinea at age 19? I was taking a culinary arts class in high school and at the same time I was working in the kitchen at that place and then I got a job at a hotel. So, I was really interested in cooking and New Mexico has a really good scholarship program to go to college ... I dropped out of school, moved to Chicago, and applied at a bunch of places and staged at a few places and got the job at Alinea. And that was very monumental. I learned so much from that place.
What do you think got you that job? I was so excited and hadn't experienced anything like that. Maybe it was mostly my energy. Excitement.
What were your biggest takeaways from working at Alinea? Probably work ethic. And attention to detail. And sense of urgency. It's just a really good work ethic. More than the food.
Can you explain that? The food there is so much different than anywhere else, but more than that, the work ethic I learned there I take with me anywhere else I go. And I think it helps a lot. Paying attention to little details. Keeping your station organized and clean.
What was it like cooking at The Willows Inn.? It's a lot different than Alinea. It's really natural and organic. It's on a small island. There's no gas stations or grocery stores or anything like that. So, they have their own fishing boats and farms and we would go every morning and pick all the herbs and berries and stuff like that. So, it was really a big change from Alinea.
And what brought you to Saison? I think it was meant to be. As silly as that sounds. When I left Chicago it was one of the restaurants I had been watching for a while and really wanted to work at. But then I got the job in Washington, so I stayed there and then after that I was like, oh, I'll move to San Francisco. If I get the job at Saison that's great, if not I am sure I can find somewhere else. I moved here and it just so happened that they had closed down their old spot and were opening their new spot. And so they were hiring a bunch of people.
You're impressively young to be sous chef at arguably San Francisco's best and most exciting restaurant of the moment. How does it feel to play an integral role at such an important restaurant at a young age? Pretty mind-blowing, actually. Hard to comprehend. But, I think most of us do it because we love it and have fun doing it. And I think Saison is one of the more down to earth, honest, fun restaurants.
What is the biggest different between working at a place like Alinea versus Saison? So much different. Alinea is very military and they have a guideline, a certain way everyone works. And then at Saison it's really natural. There's not much military things that go on there like yelling or screaming. It's very calm and quite and honest.
What's your mark on the menu? The menu changes pretty often, so I don't think there's one thing. But, I do the produce shopping for the restaurant. And we have our own farm and I try to go up there every other weekend and see what we're growing and what's at its best and bring that back to the restaurant. So, I think, instead of one dish, I have my hands in all the dishes by picking out the best produce.
Future plans? You know, not sure. Saison is ever-changing and it continues to excite me. Right now I am excited to see where we can take it and how we can improve it. I am sure I'll want my own place back in New Mexico, but for now Saison.
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[Photo: Bonjwing Lee]