All Brett Sawyer wants for people to do is give Cleveland’s food scene a chance. As the chef of the year-and-a-half-old Plum Kitchen & Cafe in the old neighborhood of Ohio City, Sawyer has been figuring out what it takes to operate a restaurant that he says “doesn’t fit into any categories” in the one of the fastest-growing food scenes in the Midwest. While one of his restaurant’s waiters may walk out with yellow corn grit croquettes, another may be balancing a smoked Ohio-raised pork shank and a dish of the popular creamed smelt. Every night, he’s learning what makes for a huge hit—and what’s a total flop.
“We’re trying to find new vehicles for flavors that people are used to, all the while keeping it fun for us,” he said.
At the 2017 StarChefs International Chef Congress (ICC), Sawyer was featured as one of four chefs who participated in the Art of Presentation Pop-Up, presented by Steelite International. To start the meal, he served the restaurant’s famous crispy egg, which is a boiled egg filled with whipped yolk, caviar, dill and paprika. “It’s essentially a deviled egg,” he said, and it’s an item he never removes from the restaurant menu, which changes weekly.
For the larger courses, Sawyer served a fried masa pie with beef belly, lobster mushrooms, lobster crema and radish, and the finale was a whole barbecued Lake Erie bass with kimchi fried rice, cilantro, and lime.
“Bass is an underutilized, marginalized fish,” he said. “Cleveland isn’t a huge seafood city, but people really love their smelt.”
Like many in the food industry, Sawyer started his career bartending and serving before he moved to an island in Pauillac, France, where he learned about dry-curing ham and processing foie gras. Once he returned to the states, he did a cooking stint at a vegan restaurant in Akron, Ohio, and worked in Three Aces in Akron, Ohio, and Publican in Chicago. He returned to Cleveland to work at chef Jonathon Sawyer’s Greenhouse Tavern and Trentina before opening up his own spot in April 2016.
Sawyer calls the city’s restaurant scene “burgeoning,” though ponders if it’s growing too quickly. He acknowledges that the scenes in other Rust Belt cities, like Detroit and Pittsburgh, are inarguably growing faster, but Cleveland is a smaller city.
“So many restaurants are opening, and I think there are too few people,” he said. “There are too many restaurants for a small city.”
However, his outlook isn’t cynical. Not long ago, Cleveland got its first ramen shop, and Sawyer’s really excited to check it out. There are also shabu shabu and hot pot restaurants, which speak to locals’ willingness to try food that may be unfamiliar to their Midwestern palates.
And, even though Sawyer is trying to preserve a sense of familiarity in the large format dishes that he serves at Plum Kitchen & Cafe, he still doesn’t always get it right.
“We put a smelt sandwich on the menu, and we thought people would love it, but no one bought it for three weeks,” he said. “Then we put chicken feet on the menu and people ordered it.”
All he wants from his customers and those who couldn’t place Cleveland on a map is to simply open their mind to his city’s food scene.
“Just give us a chance,” he said “We might surprise you.”
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