Kitchen Inquisition: Jonathan Wright

Who would've thought the agro life could prepare the Setai chef so well for life in the city?


Between the small plates at The Grill at The Setai, French cooking at the Portland Pool and Beach Restaurant, and the tapas at The Courtyard, how does chef Jonathan Wright find time for it all? Us city folk could never survive the farm life, but Wright seems to have done it in spectacular fashion. Here, the busy bee chef talks about how he made his life on the farm work for him (and benefit us foodies, too). 

I'm sure all the dishes on each of your menus are like your children, but if you had to choose only one, which are you most proud of?
Well, I have three restaurants, and they're all very different. My favorite from the The Restaurant is the laksa, and it's a dish I loved when I first went to Asia in the '90s. From The Grill, I would say the Oxtail. At the end you get a medallion of beef, but it's so soft and so good to eat.

Most popular item on the menu?
On the Grill menu is the Escabeche of Sardines, with tomato sorbet, and then the Oxtail.
How would you describe Miami's dining scene?
I would say that it's going through a metamorphosis. I find it very transient, but I've only been here for about two and a half years so I don't feel I can really give an expert opinion yet. I feel there are more polished and mature restaurants than when I first came here. I love Red Light, Anise, and Michy's; they are my favorite restaurants at the moment. Your expectations are beaten down because they're so simple, but they do it so well; you don't expect it. I think a lot of restaurants are focusing on what they do best, which didn't happen here when I first came.

At what point did you realize you were destined to be a chef?
Not very young, actually. I was about 18 at the time. Both my parent's parents were farmers, and we had a small farm, small holding, so I grew up surrounded by animals and we cooked a lot in the house. My mom actually had a catering company for many years, and I would help a lot. At first I wanted to be a farmer but then I realized at about 18 or 19 years old that my passion was cooking.
The 5 ingredients every home kitchen should have?
Olive oil, flour, salt, butter, and, here's a wacky one, sambal blachan, a block of Fermented shrimp paste they use in Singapore -- I love the taste; it's like the olive oil of Singapore.
The 5 utensils every home kitchen should have?
A sharp knife; I would say a good nonstick pan; I just bought myself a thermal circulator, or basically an updated crock pot with lower temperature controls, I think it's the best in the world; My next would be a rolling pin; and a pasta machine.
Your fondest food-related memory?
My honeymoon in Barcelona with my wife Delia. We'll never forget because we got to relax and get to know each other better. Dinning there is just one of those great pleasures in life. We started dinner at 8 p.m. with some small plates and a couple of glasses, walk a little, hit another Tapas bar, and so on. It was so much fun and the quality of ingredients is tremendous.
First dish you learned to make?
Bread. I can barely remember peeking over the counter on a stool when I was little watching my grandmother make the bread.
Favorite dish to make at home?
Anything on the barbecue. We love to barbecue and eat outside; and I love the flavor of meats, fish, and vegetables  cooked on natural charcoal or wood. Being British, I also love to cook Yorkshire puddings and roast beef because you can't get it anywhere else.

It's obvious you can cook in many styles, but what is your favorite type of food to eat?
My favorite to eat has got to be French. I mean I've cooked Southeast Asian in the States for eight years, in the UK with Raymond Blanc, and the Modern American/British/ European styles. But the foundation and roots of all those is French.

We assume Miami is quite different from life in England? What do you like about Miami that's different from everywhere else you've traveled?
I love the mixing part of it all. It's multicultural; it's got every style you could think of. I love its flamboyancy, it's so very diverse and the climate/environment I love. I mean, yeah, you've got to look for it, but I mean we've got great food, art, culture, beaches, and it's easy to get anywhere. Strategically, it's a great location, it's a city of everything. I couldn't imagine living in LA or New York; it's much easier getting around here.

What unique talents/life experiences do you feel make you "a cut above" (no pun intended) other chefs?
I think a lot of it has to do with how I came into the industry, I wasn't formally trained or anything like that, I just had a good upbringing, with the values taught to me and the food we ate. It's had a fundamental impression on food to me because we'd go to farmers markets when I was a child, we were selling produce on the side of the road at a young age, and you get an idea of how the growth changes the product. How can a chicken possibly taste good when they are raised in 30 days? My training,  my travels and opportunities to work in Singapore and England and work under Michelin-starred chefs. Then, the many years working with Raymond Blanc taught me a great deal. Being a chef is not just cooking great, it's the experiences and meeting the people you meet. You've got to understand the importance of technique, craft, and humility.

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