Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures of the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
Restaurant jobs are notoriously bucketed into the "side jobs" category, especially in New York where there's no shortage of aspiring actors, musicians and entrepreneurs of all kinds. Our interview this week is with Jon Jackson, a front of house manager at The Standard Grill in the Meatpacking District, who also paints, writes television pilots, and tends the bar at famed dive bar Welcome to the Johnsons. His background is eclectic (dishwashing at 14, college math major), but it's prepared him for his journey working up the ranks at the Grill. He worked practically every position, hopping between the front and back of house, before landing his manager role this year.
We chatted with Jon about his varied background, unpredictable future and his favorite restaurant role.
How did you end up working at the Standard Grill? I moved to New York about four years ago from Cleveland, Ohio. Back then I was painting full time-big large scale kind of modernist abstract work. I just saved up a ton of money, slept on my friend's couch for six months, and was painting every day. I got a studio on the Lower East Side, but my money ran up and I needed work, so I just started applying for jobs everywhere. And any kind of job. I sent out around 70 applications and not a single place even called me for an interview. Then I saw an ad for The Standard when it was opening for its friends and family soft opening. I sent and e-mail and they were the only place to call me back. And that's how I got a job bussing tables.
At the time it was just like, "Awesome, I got a job." I was incredibly thankful: it was a paycheck from a really cool place with really fascinating artistic people who are all more interesting than me. So I did that and then became a food runner. I got to know all the cooks and all the chefs really well. I did well enough that they would let me sneak on the line. I learned how to cook lamb and grill rib-eye steaks. It was awesome, but it really is one of the hardest jobs in the industry. It's 40 degrees hotter in the kitchen than on the floor. Eventually I became a waiter, then a captain and trainer. And now here I am, managing. It's very bizarre—I started as a busser at a place where I just wanted a job.
Which of those many positions was your favorite? The food running department is the ultimate bad-ass job. You're in a really intense environment behind the scenes. It's hot. Cooks speak in an entirely different language, which is awesome to be around. You get to look at and study food like nobody's business. And I had a few guys on the line with me who were so ambitious. We wanted to be the best food running team in New York City.
What does your role consist of right now? Touching tables all the time. We have very loyal guests here. In the three years I've been here I've seen certain faces twice a week for three years. You see them more than your family. A lot of my job is talking to them and meeting new people. It's facilitating the timing of things, fixing problems, and helping people who need help on the opposite side of the building. It's a ton of fun, coming up with solutions.
Tell us about your very varied interests, from the arts to... math? The first math class I took was the first week in college. It was advanced calculus and I took it just for fun. I failed the first exam, and I called my mom in tears and she told me to just grow up and tough it out. And I ended up doing really well in the class by the end. So I just started taking math classes, and next thing you know I'm getting a diploma. I had no intention of using it though. As soon as I got my degree though I cleaned out my bedroom and turned it into a painting studio and worked on that for two years.
I still paint but it's been a little slow lately. I've been focusing more on drawing. I got into TV, and decided I really want to learn how to make a picture that moves. So my two best friends and I just started writing, producing, filming, and editing TV and film. We just shot a four-episode TV show, a short film, and we're about to shoot a music video.
Any stories that you take home with you from here that inspire your writing? It'd be easy to write a TV show about a restaurant. There's so many unique personalities coming and going. It's the perfect environment for that. My friend Mike and I started writing a show called "Mise En Place," which was not so much about a restaurant but a behind the scenes of a Food Network-style cooking show. But being in here it's hard not to be influenced. It's such an intense situation at the heat of service. You get to see the darkest and brightest sides of people all the time.
How much has your food knowledge grown since working here? A ton. I thought I knew some stuff about food before. I grew up in a very Italian family that knows how to cook. And I've learned tenfold that since I've been here: how to cook, what it means to cook, and what it means to do the same thing every day and do it better each day. And I learned a ton about ingredients. The restaurant now has a farm upstate in Hudson Valley, and we're getting a lot of produce and meat from there.
Do you think if you got a break in your pursuit of writing, you would give up your restaurant job and go for it? I would absolutely do that. You don't get opportunities like that often, and if you get one in something you really do love, you should jump on it. There's a lot of things I want to say and stories I want to tell in the TV medium. But I enjoy everything that I'm doing and I don't want to limit myself to one thing. You get these awesome curveballs in life and that's half the fun, changing your dream. I don't want to pigeonhole myself to one particular goal.
But I genuinely love what I do here. If I didn't I wouldn't be here. This place started as a paycheck, but I stayed because I really love it. Our restaurant in particular fascinates me—I've never been around a group of people as unique as this. It's common in the industry, but everyone's always looking out for each other and cares a lot about each other.