Interview with Jonathan McDonough, Chef Jono

I fell in love with his pomegranate balsamic dressing.

It astonished me with its rich, bold, delicious flavour. A short list of healthy ingredients on the bottle did not include anything I couldn't spell. I knew right away that with this hidden weapon in my possession cooking an exquisite dish for a party would be an easy job, and collecting compliments would become an unavoidable ritual. And I was right.

picture of chef Jono

Today I speak with Jonathan McDonough, also known as chef Jono, an executive chef with 20 years of experience, who recently launched his own line of healthy gourmet salad dressings. An educator with encyclopedic knowledge and passion for healthy and natural food, he spoke about global issues, such as genetically modified food, and domestic problems, such as need to educate young people how to cook for themselves.

Here are selected topics from our conversation where you will find chef's practical tips and advice that you can start applying right away.

1.Chef Jono, thank you for taking part in our interview. Please take a moment to tell readers a little bit about yourself and any products or services you have to offer.

chef jono's wedding salad specializes in an "Interactive" catering service in Toronto and area. The difference from a regular caterer is that you get a chef creating the party you want, from scratch, in your kitchen.

What I'll do is not only show you a salad which is just amazing thing to look at, you will want to take a photo of it, I will put a mandolin in your hand, and you can learn how to make that salad. It's not that difficult to work with a knife,- there are tricks just like a carpenter, and i will show you different appetizers, different salads, how to cook a perfect steak, and after I leave you can make that wedding bouquet salad by yourself.

What's my "specialty"? Cooking up a storm in your kitchen!

2. And how did the idea of pomegranate balsamic dressing come up?

It came from the dinner parties when I was going to the people's homes and I would make my Wedding bouquet salad.

mandoline slicer

So, you need a mandoline slicer ( which scares people) , and you take a cucumber and make a kind of wrap and then inside you put endive, grated celery root, slices of pear, and drizzle it over with red pomegranate balsamic syrup reduction.

So I was making the sauce, and my customers said "Well, can't you put it in a bottle?"

At first I developed a thick gooey maple syrup type of texture of red pomegranate. There were other products at the marketplace that used corn starch, xanthan gum and two or three kinds of other thickeners and sugar. And I just thought - why does it have to be thick? A lot of foods are thick, people think they are good, but they are not. Béchamel doesn't taste better because it is thick, it's flour that makes it thick. So I made this product that is a combination of good vinegar, Canadian honey, balsamic vinegar, and pomegranate molasses which is a natural pomegranate reduction from Lebanon.

It's a splash of flavored vinegars. It's like a vinaigrette, except there is no oil. That's what I specialize in now - flavored vinegars like Mango Hot Pepper, Tamarind Tamari, and Pomegranate Balsamic and a new Blueberry Blackpeppercorn.

chef jono's dressings

3. You worked at Shasha Bread Co., a healthy bakery, for 7 years. Could you tell us something interesting about bread ingredients? What are the most unhealthy ingredients in the conventional baked goods, including bread?

Food product labels do not have to include ingredients that are present in less than 1% . So more than 90 additives are allowed in bread products and yet are never printed on the ingredient label!

For instance in the case of food colours, both artificial and natural colours are limited to a maximum of 5%. This scrutiny cam about because in the early 1900's most of them are derivatives of coal tar compounds used as dye in the textile industry. Many still are, but now an regulatory body, often composed of executives from the industry oversees these food agencies in both Canada and the U.S. The maximum amounts are restricted, but the fact they may be from non-food sources like coal tar for example, is not.

But "bread conditioners and preservatives" are use to affect the way bread bakes and stores and are used in very small amounts, below the labeling threshold, so don't appear on the label and are therefore an industry secret.

Did you know that human hair is used as a dough conditioner? It's called L-Cysteine, Google it and see.

Or that bleach is the number one additive in all food? It makes bread fluffy and white and keeps your salad mix fresher.

Here are some links for you:
Understanding common bread additives
Centre for science in the public interest: Food additives
GFTC newsletter
Flour additives. Technical bulletin

4. Some of our readers are just starting to learn healthy cooking. Speaking about “right tools for the job”, what kitchen tools or equipment would you recommend them to get in order to make this experience easy and enjoyable?

It's very simple, but not necessarily cheap. You need to have a good knife, called a French knife or chef's knife, 8 or 10 inch blade. The manufacturer is not important, Henckel's is the one everyone knows, but there are other brands - Victorinox, Sabatier. Japanese knives cost around 200 dollars. You need to go to the Williams-Sonoma store or a professionial restaurant supply store and discover what works ergonomically in your hand. Spend at least 80 dollars. You don't need to spend more than a 100, but you do need to spend more than 50. It's a high-strength carbon steel that makes the difference.

French or chef's knife

Chef's knife

5. And the knife stays sharp?

They will need care, and there are a few tools you can get to keep it sharp. The rod is the worst, it only keeps a good knife in shape, it cannot take a dull knife and make it sharp. If you don't know how to use the rod properly, there will be no benefit in it at all. There are little hand-held ceramic wheels that you draw the blade through. Don't throw this knife in the drawer with the other knives because this will dull it. It needs its own spot or a holder on a top of countertop in a wood block, or its own drawer.

All you need is one chef's knife, one bread knife, and also possibly one utility knife for boning meat.

The important thing about a chef's knife is that you learn how to hold the knife.

Every time I do a demonstration, I show people how to hold the knife. It's like holding a gun - you don't hold it properly, it won't cut straight and will be dangerous. There is a specific way to hold it - and only a chef's knife is built to fit your hand.

Next thing is a good cutting board.

6. Like a bamboo board?

I don't like bamboo boards, they dull the knife. They have a very hard surface, "fast" surface. But they look nice, they don't show scratches, and at least they are healthy. Maple wood boards are the best. Again, spend a decent amount, up to 50 dollars or more, the heavier and bigger, the better. Put a non-slip liner padding underneath. You need at least 12 to 24 square inches of space, don't crowd yourself. For safety sake, it is good to have a large cutting surface. Glass is the worst: it is difficult on the knife, it gives you no feel, it's slippery and it looks lousy.

7. What type of board is safer?

Wood is safer than plastic - it deters bacteria, wood has a natural anti-microbial effect. If you touch a plastic board, even cleaned in the dishwasher it will be stained and, have this oily feeling. Because plastic holds on to oil. It's good to have two boards - a wood one for general work, like meat and vegetables, one - and another just for high hazard meat like chicken, that one you can wash in the dishwasher. There is nothing dangerous about pork, meat, vegetables, only chicken can have salmonella. A quick wash with light soap and water, or once in a while vinegar and coarse salt keeps the wood clean, and rub in some food friendly oil to keep it from cracking.

You need to wash any surface that raw chicken comes in contact with. You probably did not know that chicken by itself is not dangerous, it rarely contains salmonella bacteria. The problem is in the way it is processed and butchered - since bacteria comes from the fecal matter inside a chicken's intestine, it is more likely to be cut open during processing and spread to the meat tissue that larger animals. Then if one infected chicken comes along it is dipped in a bleach wash mixing its bacteria with all the other pieces coming through that day.

8. So it is better to avoid these dangers and be a vegetarian

Being a vegetarian doesn't just mean eating a lot of salads, you need to do a serious research of legumes and other sources of protein, vitamins and minerals so you understand what is necessary to keep yourself strong. Salads are not necessarily the healthiest thing to eat - salads are just the leaves of plant after all, and foods like Iceberg, Butter-leaf lettuce, romaine - they are all water. There is some Vitamin A,C and D, that's it.

Whereas with leafy greens like red swiss chard, dandelion greens, collard greens, rapini and cabbage, these are all very high in minerals, that's why they are a little bit bitter. When vegetables live long enough to pull nutrients from the soil, it will taste like soil.

Think of the taste of a carrot, a parsnip or a squash - they all have been living for good two months or more in the sun.

So called mesclun mix or baby greens, have lived for only two weeks or so, then are chopped down, washed and bleached, shipped ( spending up to two weeks in the truck before you get them). Then people put a sweet commercial dressing on it, and think they are doing themselves a favor. Water, sugar and Canola oil, an industrial lubricant from GMO seeds. You are healthier eating a hamburger!

Being a vegetarian means having a good balanced diet, including five to seven portions of different vegetables and grains per day and taking the responsibility to take on new healthy challenges, trying different vegetables and seasoning to keep things interesting. Since that takes some work, the food industry jumps in with an easy alternative like soy based TVP meat replacements, which beside being made from GMO soy, and too much soy is not good for you at all, it mimicks meat dishes like hot dogs and meat patties, and puts the consumer right back into the high sugar, high salt rut of the fast food age.

Chef Jono, thanks again for talking to me today. All the best of luck with your business!

You can find chef Jono's contact information here. He does vegan and vegetarian parties, too. Chef Jono teaches cooking classes all over Toronto and GTA, you can find schedule here. Come learn chef's cooking secrets and you will likely become one of his raving fans!


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