On a mission to find some of Madison’s young chefs eager to make their mark on the city, the Young & Hungry series spotlights three chefs ready for the challenge.
By Elizabeth Geboy
I interviewed 24 year old Jon Pieters at Harvest, a farm to table restaurant where he is the current head chef. Before he graduated from Madison Area Technical College cooking program in December 2014, Pieters had started with the audio engineering program at UW Madison. He quickly realized the engineering degree wasn’t what he wanted- he’d rather follow his passion for cooking.
“Every job I had ever had was in the kitchen, so I decided to pursue it. It snowballed after that!” Pieters said.
Having recently moved from working at Salvatore’s Pizza, I asked about the switch and his cooking passions. At Salvatore’s Pizza, Pieters learned how to “run a restaurant, to do the operations. It was really creative there, with opportunities to do small plates… it’s not your typical pizza joint.”
He had worked in fine dining before, and wanted to return to the refined cuisine. Harvest offered him the ability to create whole dishes and menus. He thinks that the heavy workload and busy schedule at Harvest is a good position for him to be in. Pieters has been at Harvest for about four months and he sees himself as a chef there for the foreseeable future.
“I think throughout your career you’re always trying to get to the next level, and I think I’m at that next level now. I just need to get comfortable, keep doing my thing” Pieters said.
I asked about his decision to stay and cook in Madison after graduating from MATC.
“There’s the market for it- there’s so many restaurants and an educated consumer here [in Madison],” Pieters acknowledges. “The number of restaurants also makes is difficult to gather staff, and find people who are willing to put in the hours and do the hard work. But it’s a foodie town for sure.”
Running a restaurant takes a lot of time and effort, and for Pieters it’s nice to step away from all the action. So while he might not do a lot of cooking at home, he definitely still enjoys cooking outdoors, grilling or barbecue for big events.
Every Saturday, Pieters and his sous chef go to the farmers’ market. Pieters also has a small network of farmers who he works with to have fresh produce delivered to Harvest. They double up with going to the Wednesday farmers market. We agree that it’s good to get to know your farmers and you meet great people through market interactions. Pieters may not have a favorite chef, but he has a lot of Thomas Keller books.
“[Keller] is the name off the top of my head. Bouchon and the French Laundry are great references that I use. The Alinea cookbook is pretty spectacular cookbook!” Pieters said. “You just have to [look for] components and good ideas, and try to incorporate them in the menu.”
Alinea is a restaurant in Chicago, run by Grant Achatz, and is focused on molecular gastronomy cooking techniques. Thinking about the chefs who have restaurants and cookbooks under their name, I asked if he sees himself opening his own restaurant.
“I would like to! I’m trying to figure out what is the end game, [but] it’d be nice to be your own boss,” Pieters laughed.
He continued talking about the possibility of owning his own restaurant, and though he’s not 100 percent sure, he will continue to pursue what makes him happy. Pieters has been in Madison for seven years, and I asked if he plans on staying here or moving elsewhere.
“Short term, yeah [I’ll stay], eventually I’d like to move somewhere bigger. I feel like Madison is a good place to come back to”
For Pieters, it will be important to have time away, to come back to Madison having learned from others and advanced his skills. He said he doesn’t yet have a favorite dish as Harvest, yet. I asked about menu changes, and in what direction he was taking Harvest.
“From the last chef and his preferences and his experiences [the menu is] evolving… into my preferences. I like working with fish, and something we’re working on is getting some locally sourced fish, fish from Wisconsin,” Pieters said. In the spring, Harvest is looking to get whitefish from Lake Superior
“We’re landlocked… as much as we want to preach locality, but we can’t really do it local. So you look at doing it sustainably. We go through ‘Sea to Table’, it’s what their repertoire is,” Pieters ruminates. He values that “the salmon is wild caught, halibut is wild caught… it’s nice to be able to work with somebody who shares that vision.”
The key to Pieter’s success?
“Maintain [your] standards. Putting out the best quality product, at all times.”