Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chef's Choice: Jonathan Olson, Erato on Main

Posted By on Thu, Jan 28, 2010 at 3:45 PM

Jonathan Olson claims that his mountain biking skills have suffered since becoming a chef, but the 28-year-old is plenty zippy.

Not even four years after he started cooking professionally at Canoe in St. Charles, Olson assumed the executive chef position at Erato on Main in Edwardsville, Illinois, at the beginning of January.

click to enlarge Jonathan Olson, executive chef of Edwardsville's Erato on Main - ROBIN WHEELER
  • Robin Wheeler
  • Jonathan Olson, executive chef of Edwardsville's Erato on Main

It's not the path he intended after earning his degree in economics and finance from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

"I worked for [The Edwardsville Intelligencer] for three years and one day," he says. "At that time, I was riding my bike a lot, and I was in a lot better shape than I am now. I was eating healthier and I was working with my hands. I looked at what cooking is. It's a very physical job. I thought that it would translate well. I saw the business side, which interested me. Then I saw the creative side, which definitely interests me."

Three months and a lot of reading later, he changed careers. He worked at Canoe for a year before some good timing and a bad wake-up call intervened: "It was an hour and fifteen minute drive every day, and I was working 70 to 77 hours a week. Kevin [Willman] had opened Erato in September. In October I fell asleep driving home on a Saturday night, went off the road and obliterated my car. I was all right. I actually stayed asleep in my car for three hours and woke up at four in the morning and really didn't know what was going on. I tried to turn on my car and the bottom part of my car was all gone. I'd hit a ravine and went into a field. I get out and I'm like, 'What the fuck?' I was a mile from my house. I liked working at Canoe, but I knew Kevin was doing some really cool stuff. At the end of the year I moved over here."

Though his mother likes to bake, Olson didn't get his culinary education at home. He started making lunch for himself when he was in school as an alternative to eating fast food.

"I learned by working in a good kitchen," Olson explains. "Kevin was a good teacher, and I spend all my money going to restaurants and traveling. I've staged at a lot of places. I've worked for free at a lot of places, whether it's been for a week or a couple of days. I can walk into a kitchen and see how they've got the wine set up, who's doing what, break that down and see what makes them successful. Or even see things that I would improve. It's certainly less expensive than going to culinary school."

Despite his chef-driven education, Olson returns to his roots to make me one of his favorite recipes: a breakfast cake that has been used to drag the kids in his family out of bed for several generations. The free-form cake is thin but spongy, its delicate interior protected by a crisp layer of cinnamon and caramelized sugar.

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