The Messy Genius Of Jonathan Brooks

As Brooks introduces the follow-up to his blockbuster brunch place Milktooth, you might expect him to feel some pressure. But Indy’s highest profile chef seems comfortable with imperfection.

September 2018Add a comment

At Beholder on East 10th Street, one day before the grand opening, cooks are charring perfectly good garden vegetables on a hot grill. It can be said: Cucumbers are burning. Their skins are starting to swell from the heat.

Nearby, several new bartenders are in training at the bar in front of three highballs. They note the garnishes and mixes in journals as dim house music plays overhead. On the stove, three pots simmer. Between the bar and the grill station, there’s a four-day old newspaper and a splay of invoices. The house checkbook stands unmanned for a moment, next to a small truck made out of Legos, amidst a forest of wine bottles. An assistant pastry chef paces, looking down into her calculator, then through the pass-through at a workstation populated with cups of macerated raspberries.

Observing all this, Jonathan Brooks—Indy’s 33-year-old superstar chef—moves from one cooking station to the next, pretty much silent. He is an engine of calm, here at the finish of a two-year journey toward opening this restaurant, his highly anticipated dinner place, after the massive success of his brunch destination Milktooth. Brooks is a big guy now, large in his kitchen whites, hulking you might say, having spent many months testing dishes for the opening. “Every night, new entrees, new drinks to try,” he says. “I eat and eat. I don’t care. That’s my job at the moment. I’m a glutton for this place.”

Grilled cucumbers in a vinaigrette of their own burnt skins.

As he cruises his new dining room, set in the shell of a former auto parts shop, he is guided mostly by a sequenced cook timer on his cell phone, set to vibrate. Brooks stands at the grill, leans in, and takes a gander as the sous chef turns things. The cucumbers are really getting black.

In 2014, Jonathan Brooks emerged from obscurity and, alongside his then-wife Ashley Brooks, gave Indianapolis Milktooth, the breakfast/brunch miracle in Fletcher Place. Wasabi pea Dutch baby pancakes. A trademark whitefish salad on challah. Grilled cheese with black-truffle honey topped with a duck’s egg. Chicken thighs with cochigaru sauce, featuring fennel and pickled peppers. These were dishes worth talking about at 11:45 on a hungover Saturday morning.

It was straight butter from there. Local foodies are familiar with the moonshot of his fame. Within a year, Brooks was named a best new chef and featured on the cover of Food & Wine. Conde Nast Traveler included Milktooth on its list of best restaurants in the world. Indianapolis, as featured in stories about Brooks and Milktooth, began being mentioned as a “food destination,” with Milktooth named an “essential restaurant” by Eater’s restaurant editor. In 2015, the city even held a Milktooth Day to commemorate Brooks, his food, and the apparent shift in national perception of the city.

Brooks stood tall as a proponent of Indiana-sourced foods, too. “I grew up here. My formative years were here,” he says. “And when I left for Montana, I never planned to move back. But when I did, I was blown away by the agriculture muscle of the place, and the cool produce available here.” He then lists from memory the farms, proprietors, and distributors who fill the larder at Milktooth every morning. He offers phone numbers.

Brooks shares the spotlight reflexively. He sincerely wants people to take a look for themselves at what he’s found here. He is an open champion of food offerings in Indiana, often written off for the rows of soy beans and feed corn in its fields. Brooks has overturned that perception. He did the leg work before opening Milktooth. He knows what’s out there. It revs him up to list it from memory, like a Gatling gun.

For Brooks, the pleasure of cooking lies in the assemblage of arcane hunches and wild hairs of memory. Or maybe it’s just eating. The man eats. “When we were putting the menu together, [sommelier] Josh Mazanowski and I sat around and tried everything we could think of,” he says. “Linking wines to tastes, and to the smells of food. Then we linked ingredients for our own pleasure. We crossed stuff. And re-crossed.”

“I’m not the type of chef who shoots for perfect food,” he says. “I don’t write recipes down. I like a little chaos in my eating.”

Asked how many of these experiments will make the menu at Beholder, Brooks is circumspect. “Not many,” he says. “A small percentage. We ate a lot in order to offer what we have here. And just stayed in, eating and drinking.” He slaps his hand against his chest, somewhere above his stomach, over his heart maybe. “It doesn’t matter. That’s the job.”

Situated on East 10th Street, Beholder almost certainly will accelerate the restoration of what was recently a fringe neighborhood. His reasons for the location? “Mostly we just found a landlord who was willing to let us work with the space,” he says. “We didn’t hire a designer. We pulled it together ourselves, using our own ideas, our own palette.”

So they had no sense of betting on the location? He shrugs a little. “It’s close to Milktooth,” he says, downplaying the significance of rebuilding a vacant commercial structure in a neighborhood which needs that sort of help. “And I live near here. I can ride my bike. And it’s easier to see my son when I can.”

But he is betting on what he can do with dinner, with wine pairings, crafted small plates, bowls shared around festive and intimate tables. It’s a cozy, elegant layout stretching across the still perceivable auto bays, from the child-friendly pink room near the entrance, through the bar and open grill, toward candle-lit dining at the far end. The opening-week menu would feature pig-skin pad-thai with kohlrabi, smoked dried shrimp, tofu, and peanuts; pan-roasted skate wings, with potato-skin aioli and fresh green curry sauce; and, of course, the infamous grilled cucumber, with the pricey option to add caviar and clotted cream.

“Food is a sensual thing,” Brooks says. “And I want people sharing bowls, reaching for bites, feeding one another. Just treating the food like something to touch as well as taste.” His plates are little experiments, different every night. “I’m not the type of chef who shoots for perfect food,” he says. “I don’t write recipes down. I like a little chaos in my eating.”

Chefs, they know things. Obscure stews from Puerto Rico. Techniques for grilling fish in a tent by a river. The way to treat a duck egg in a copper pan. Trained in the star chamber of cramped kitchens on the edges of European cities, they come back to us armed with hard-won formulations about what may be the single constant in the lives of every human on the planet: food. On television, through a pass-through, splayed across the pages of a magazine, they shout, rattle pans over blue flame, urge others toward their vision of the possibility of a meal, a bite, a spoonful of soup. The theatrics of the kitchen are legend—the shouting, the lectures and cajoling, the jokes and threats. All that piles up. Late nights, early mornings, long weeks, years even. Cooking sometimes looks like just another shitty, stressful job. When you’re young, you can burn a night in the grill light of your own enthusiasm. When you’ve been in the business for a decade, you sometimes feel all you’ve burned recently is bridges.

For whatever reason, few of the local chefs contacted for this article wanted to talk about Brooks. Two actively refused. One ignored every inquiry. Why wouldn’t they be eager to do a little windup on what Brooks brings to the table?

Among the dishes that made the cut for Beholder’s first menu is the red noodle bean crudités with foie gras bagna cauda.

“I think a lot of it, early on, was jealousy and resentment,” says Greg Hardesty, former head chef and owner of the now-shuttered restaurant Recess, where Brooks served as chef de cuisine. Hardesty, who retired from the restaurant business last year, is often referred to as Brooks’s mentor. “He was just a friend of the sous chef who came in and talked to me one day,” he says. “And at Recess, we really needed his energy and momentum. You saw that in the rise of Milktooth. I was happy for him—the magazine covers, that piece in Food & Wine. But even I felt a twinge of envy, a little sense of Why couldn’t that have happened to me? It’s only natural. There are people doing good work all over this city. A lot of it has to be right place, right time.”

So why did Brooks find fame when others didn’t? Maybe luck had something to do it. But Hardesty suspects there was something more, too. “Jonathan is very well read,” he says. “When he worked for me, he was constantly thinking back to some soup he ate in the back of a store somewhere, or some recipe he found in an out-of-print cookbook. That kind of thing matters.”

Before starting Recess, Hardesty owned the downtown restaurant Elements, which was a hot ticket for a long time. So he knows something about trying to replicate a hit. When asked if he thinks Beholder will take a toll on Brooks, he seems to worry.

“I do think he desperately wants to do it again,” he says. “But it’s really a lousy way to make a living. It’s one thing when you’re in your 20s, and everyone you’re hiring is, too, and you work all night long, and you count on each other. It’s something else when you’re in your mid-30s, with every aspect of life pulling at you, and you start to feel you can’t count on a generation that hasn’t lived through all of this yet. That second go round, it can be a real bitch.”

On my way to Beholder one afternoon, I had—of all things—a lousy chicken-fried steak in Avon. “It was gummy,” I tell Brooks. “Can you fix a bad chicken-fried steak?”

Brooks is too smart to hazard guesses about other people’s cooking without trying it first. But he sees things worth borrowing in much of what he eats. “When you’ve been cooking as long as I have, 90 percent of the time, a problem is very, very obvious,” he says. “So you take an idea that almost works, and take it back to your restaurant to make it work. Lean on your ingredients. I’m an experimenter. A fixer. I’ll change things up anytime. You have to learn as you go.”

Asked for an example from the new menu, he demurs. Brooks is never willing to give away specifics. And I’m not a fool. I’m not going to play foodie Jeopardy! and recite one of his beautifully elaborate combinations. There’s no pleasure in giving Brooks his own answer.

“You know what I mean,” I say. After I wait out his pause, Brooks reaches down into a little steel pan on the counter and under the sheet of plastic wrap. He selects a single green from a larger pile, and holds it up. It’s about an inch long, a little stick that looks a lot like a tiny piece of bamboo. “That’s a sea bean,” he says. He motions for me to take one. “They’re a form of seaweed. Salty, crunchy.” He chews and thinks.

I do, too. “Tart,” I say. “Good!”

“I know, right?” says another chef from the far corner of the kitchen. He walks over and eats one. I can’t get over it. How did I not know about sea beans? So salty, so crunchy.

He ate them in some far-off market. “My job is to bring things back, and start playing,” Brooks says. “To use ingredients in new ways.”

Ok, Alex: What is squid boudin with squid ink sausage, sweet carmelized corn, and—wait for it—sea beans? That one’s from Beholder’s opening-night menu.

After a moment, Brooks sets two large white vegetables on their end, side by side. Two fleshy cylinders, like, well, phalluses. “True Normandy red asparagus,” he says. “These are the real deal. Very few restaurants use these. They grow entirely underground. Once these start sprouting, they knock up these little piles of dirt from below.” Chef, he knows things.

Talent for one. Brooks partnered in the venture of Beholder with Mazanowski, the sommelier from Recess, whom he met while working there. He coaxed pastry chef Pete Schmutte from Cerulean. He lauds his kitchen staff, also hand selected. “The really great thing about cooking is the teamwork, the fact that five talented people can really grow things for you in here.”

Members of the Beholder staff showed up before there even was a kitchen. “These guys have been coming in for weeks, working without clocking in,” he says. “They’ve been painting the walls, pulling out carpets. To run a good kitchen, you really need a group of people that will stay utterly loyal to one another.” Then, suddenly, he holds his hands out, beatific, indicating the kitchen around him and the people he has chosen. “Now,” Brooks says, “they are here and we are ready.”

“That’s what we came for,” says a tattooed guy, another chef, giving an upnod to Brooks. And it’s the truth. Here’s this guy in a kitchen, doing the most routine prep work there is, slicing scallions into absurdly accurate rings of green, so the bowl full of them looks like a little heap of jewelry. Brooks looks into the bowl. “You know I’ve worked in restaurants where all the vegetables were proportioned into little bags, which the cooks would drop into boiling water, and walk away,” he says. “It’s like there’s no risk to the process. I hate that. I want the process to matter as much as the product.”

“I’ve worked in restaurants where all the vegetables were proportioned into little bags, which the cooks would drop into boiling water, and walk away.” Brooks says. “It’s like there’s no risk to the process. I hate that.”

Later, in the dining room, Brooks stands with a sous chef and seasons something bubbling in a large stockpot. He faces her and drops in a pinch of an ingredient, something red and proprietary enough that he won’t tell me what it is when I ask as he returns to the table in the center of everything. Does he expect Beholder to follow the same arc of success as Milktooth? Brooks gives a blank look. “You have certain hopes, you know,” he says. “Just maybe not the same hopes as the first time.” He’s willing to reflect on what he may have lost on that trip. “There’s a cost. I’ve lost a lot to drinking, to late nights. I’ve been divorced twice. There’s a lot of my family I haven’t seen that much. You know, I only see my son two or three times a week. It’s never not tough.”

But there are, he notes, a lot of people counting on Beholder. He will give the job what it takes. “This cooking thing is not going anywhere for me,” he says. “It’s the only thing I know how to do. I can’t close the restaurant and go make money some other way.”

Brooks doesn’t like to categorize his cooking. He has called himself an “emotional cook” on various occasions, which at first seems evasive. “Food itself is emotional,” he explains. “I try to let my dishes be influenced by sadness and pain. By loss, as much by joy. Maybe that’s something that doesn’t come across for everybody, maybe not as much as happiness. But I know that it’s in there.”

Just then, a couple of teenagers enter the restaurant. They plop down in the chairs directly next to Brooks, not seeming to know who he is. The big dog, I want to say. The boss man. Jonathan Brooks!

“These guys are going to be bussing tables,” Brooks tells me. “They’re in for training.” The kids hold out their hands for a shake, and introduce themselves.

“How did you land this job?” I ask, figuring them to be neighborhood kids.

“This is my niece and nephew,” Brooks says. They shrug appreciatively.

“You’re bringing them into the business then?” I ask.

“My family has always supported me,” he says. “My mother and sister were hanging wallpaper over there. They were in washing dishes during our last test menu dinner. My family is already way in.”

“Does he give you advice?” I ask the kids. There’s a pause.

“Do you?” the girl asks Brooks, raising an eyebrow.

“Never stop eating,” he says before he gets up to start working again. There are experiments ahead. And cucumbers nearby that need to be burned.

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