At a very young age, Chef Jonathan Harris was immersed in the culinary industry as a result of his father’s profession as a chef and restaurateur. While other kids were out playing , Harris’ father looped him into the day to day activities of the family’s restaurant business — a common occurrence that initially caused him to be disinterested in the culinary industry. It took, what Harris calls, “an uneventful sports injury” to bring him back to the kitchen.
Unaware of his own innate culinary prowess, Harris quickly became a fan favorite at his father’s restaurant where clients specifically asked for dishes prepared by him. This as well as his family’s deep rooted passion for education and hospitality encouraged him to enroll in Johnson & Wales University to further develop this culinary skills.
Although attaining a formal degree was beneficial, Harris is among many black chefs who credit their innovative culinary skill set to their passion for flavors and constant pursuit to change the plight of black chefs in the culinary industry. Harris, who is of Costa Rican and African-American heritage, describes his affinity for soul food as a personal struggle. A struggle which is often illuminated by the experiences faced by many black chefs in the culinary industry.
Often pigeonholed as “soul food chefs,” black chefs have to work twice as hard for recognition in the fine dining space and have to seek out ways to tell their unique culinary stories. Harris describes instances where making pasta from scratch in a fine dining establishment was met with astonishment like “ where did you learn how to do that?” With people around him expecting him to only know how to make fried chicken, Harris pushed himself to fine tune his culinary craft in order to break down these long standing stereotypes.
At Dine Diaspora’s recent Signature Dinner, guests had the pleasure of enjoying the culinary creations of Chef Harris. Harris created a 4- course menu titled “Life & Times” which was influenced by hints of the Caribbean fused with Deep South flavors and cooking techniques. The first course, Spicy corn fritters with bread and butter pickles over a cilantro sweet corn puree, was a salute to his father.
“The inspiration behind this dish is corn. My father owned a restaurant called Cornbread & Caviar and I am trying to find ways to put corn in all of my dishes without it being too overwhelming.”
For the second course, Harris substituted the traditional potato gnocchi with Yuca- also known as Cassava and consumed largely in Latin America, Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. For the second course — Yucca gnocchi in saffron cream sauce topped with turkey sausage- Harris explains:
"I figured starch is starch so I added a little bit of potatoes but most of it is Yuca. It was tough grinding it down and getting it to be malleable enough to use without it being streaky or fibrous!"
The third course — Jerk head on prawns over jalapeno coconut grits — is influenced by the Jamaican jerk style of cooking and a play on rice and peas. Chef Harris ties this dish to his upbringing:
"Growing up there was a lot of Caribbean influence. My family is from Brooklyn and so everyone knows Eastern Parkway and Labor Day, we eat West Indian food no matter what. This is a play on jerk chicken and rice and peas. The title of this dish is “Yah Mon”- anyone who eats jerk chicken and rice and peas knows that the rice and peas is supposed to be what cools it down but it also has spice in it too. You make rice and peas with coconut milk, so I did a coconut and jalapeno grits with jerk prawns. So it’s spice on spice but if you are used to spice, that’s the cooling point."
Chef Harris ended the evening with the fourth course — Cornbread tres leches with salted sweet corn ice cream. For this dish, Harris substituted the tres leches cake with cornbread — a play on his southern heritage and culinary influences. Cornmeal balances out the sweetness that often accompanies the conventional tres leches cake.
Chef Jonathan Harris admittedly loves soul food and incorporates some of its traditions and flavors into his dishes, however, he is keen on exploring diverse flavors and techniques. Not shying away from his heritage, Harris is rather fusing other cooking techniques with what already feels familiar to him. He is unapologetically disrupting the culinary space one dish at a time and changing long standing, stereotypical notions about what it means to be a black chef.