Jonah Reider is part chef, part improviser, part magician, and part kid-on-street-just-looking-to-make-it. Last year, Reider wanted to feed a few of his buddies at Columbia, so he started a restaurant in his dorm room. The story snatched headlines — now the young cook has a web series on the way, and is prepping for a residency at Chicago’s lauded Intro.
Reider joins the culinary world’s long tradition of bold innovators — after all, how many of us thought to do a $15 per plate pop-up in our cramped campus kitchens? That’s how good cooks make it in 2016, f*ck waiting for brick and mortar or the approval of the gatekeepers. Just do the thing.
This week, we chatted about culinary simplicity, getting weird with quince, and where to eat in NYC.
Where did it all start?
When we would have parties in high school everyone would be f*cked up, and I’d run into the kitchen and raid some suburban parent’s pantry. Nothing fancy in the slightest — just roast potatoes or something like that. I just became known for cooking all the time at people’s parties. I also wrote a comedy food column where we’d critique the most mundane or nastiest food stuff from a high-schooler’s perspective. So, I’ve been doing food stuff for a while now, but I didn’t get into serious dining until a couple years ago.
Then you went to college and sh*t got real.
It felt organic at the time. I participated in this thing called Potluck House at Columbia where you’d cook a meal for 5 people once a week. Then I started cooking my senior year in my dorm. My friends would be throwing me five or ten bucks for some pretty simple food. At a certain point I started making more ridiculous things and taking more and more advantage of the farmer’s market at Columbia. Then I asked everyone to throw me fifteen bucks so I could make a really dank meal for all of us. And then somebody suggested I have people sign up for this experience online and it took on a life of its own.
There’s also news out there that you’re taking a stab at a food series? What was it like being behind and in front of the camera?
It’s good, yo! It was so much fun to shoot. It’s going to run on Elite Daily. I’m really glad I got to create a concept and execute. This was the project where I was given a lot of creative agency which allowed me to set the tone of what my future food projects will have.
How’s your show going to stand out from the choices currently out there?
There are just five episodes. They’re all pretty short. The series is all about the joy of making dope food for not a lot of money. You don’t need a lot of money or fancy sh*t to make delicious food. But you do need an excitement about engaging with your community, finding cool ingredients, and playing around in the kitchen. And that’s what creates good food.
In each episode I visit a cool location in New York — a neighborhood or a farmer’s market — and I’m always with somebody who’s uniquely well-positioned to show me around. I go to Flushing, Queens with a Chinese friend of mine who’s an amazing musician, and he’s showing me all the amazing ingredients and tasty food. Another episode was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and we go to Zabar’s with a lovely Jewish lady and comedian Eric Andre. We all eat a ton of knishes and matzo ball soup and talk about our Jewish heritage and what that means for dining. Then I’ll got back to a kitchen and whip up a dish with all the ingredients I scavenged on my adventure.
I’m just going to rattle off some topics. Tell me what pops into your head. Bucket list food? Food/travel destinations?
I love visiting Japan. I’d really like to go back and more carefully explore food there. I also really want to go to Denmark, just to try a bunch of restaurants. There’s so many places, yo, traveling is super fun — Southeast Asia, Chile, Argentina. One thing that I’m so excited about is doing interesting dining pop-ups with art or music performances that integrate food in a lot of different locations.
How do you feel about your skills?
For me it’s always an improvisation. I try to think very carefully about all the food that I eat. I try to image the technique and process by which it was made. I try and read menus when I’m walking around NYC. I’m still learning every day.
Where are your blindspots?
I have quite a lot to still learn about cooking. People who are going to culinary school are learning a lot of different sh*t that I don’t know. I recognize that it’s very privileged and precocious to just show up and start making your own plates. A lot of young cooks — if they had the opportunity to serve just whatever the f*ck they wanted — would have some amazing ideas. Many of them are learning incredible skills and climbing a ladder that takes a very long time with very little pay. I’m always learning from people like that.
And that’s one of the reasons I’m excited for the Chicago residency because it’s an opportunity for me to put out my ideas, but I’ll be working with a team that knows way more about cooking than me. I might be bringing ideas and setting the vibe, but it’s going to be a great learning experience for me cooking-wise.
Who are some of your favorite chefs at the moment?
Alice Waters I think is really interesting and spectacular. Ignacio Mattos at Estrela. Jeremiah [Stone] and Fabain [von Huske] at Wild Air. I think Wild Air is really, really cool place. Ruth Reichl is like totally a dope mentor. Ruth is really amazing. I had the honor of cooking her dinner.
Also in terms of inspiration — places like the Boiler Room and its concept as a cultural product. I find that just as inspiring as I find certain chefs inspiring. They created this amazing community that has a good vibe, great social atmosphere, they’re good at connecting artists all over the place.
Where are you eating these days?
What’s the next dish you want to cook?
I’m excited about a venison tartar with porcini, juniper, and quince. I’m going to create a very intense jus of porcini infused with the juniper and cooked down quince and toss the raw venison in that. Then I’m thinking of putting some super thin crispy slices of fried porcini and also crispy slices of juniper-pickled quince. It’s very simple in terms of ingredients. But I think it’s going to be dope.
Brick-and-mortar or pop-ups?
I like the idea of pop-ups because I’m afforded the opportunity to work with all sorts of different institutions. I can work in New York’s smallest art gallery with a potter to make edible art, all the way to having 500 people in a mansion on Fifth Avenue where I curate a dining experience around a concert.
I would like to open up my own space, a venue that could function socially in a way most restaurants don’t. It could be a space where you come and hang out with people, be at your own party, or meet new folks. Have it be a place that can display cutting edge digital art and sound artists and serve food. Basically I’m trying to imagine how dope and curated a bar can be.
How do you want to change people’s perception of food?
I’m so young, yo. All this sh*t happened in the last year. I’d love to create something. I want to get people excited about making awesome dining experiences for themselves and realizing that great cuisine doesn’t have to be really complicated and really expensive food that you don’t really understand.
It’s more about food occurring in an amazing social context. I would maybe like to get people together who think the same way about music and art and architecture, you know, anything where the value is a lot more social than we think.
What’s the goal?
I wanna have a f*cking dope TV show where I travel around the world with my homies — adventuring, finding the best local music, art, and snacks. I want to a cool venue in New York that’s very accessible to people but that also serves interesting cuisine and connecting musicians, artists, and chefs. I want a line of cannabis infused cooking products.
If you’re in Chicago, check out Reider’s skills at INTRO from Sept. 15-Oct. 15. Reider’s web series Nice Food For Not Too Much will stream over at Elite Daily at a TBD date.