Metro Weekly

Joyous Cooking: Jonathan Bardzik on farm markets, fresh ingredients and the joy of cooking

With a gorgeous new cookbook, Jonathan Bardzik is hoping to sprout his Eastern Market roots into a national culinary brand

Jonathan Bardzik - Photo: Todd Franson

Jonathan Bardzik – Photo: Todd Franson

In conversation and in cooking demos, Jonathan Bardzik is likely to describe at least one of his favorite food items in literal adult terms. “This is what an onion wants to be when it grows up,” Bardzik will say about shallots, which he deems “the Bombay Sapphire of the onion world.” Yellow onions, to extend his gin comparison, are Beefeater. Crème fraiche, meanwhile, is “sour cream for grownups. It’s a more refined flavor.”

Raised in Pelham, Mass., Bardzik grew up on onions and sour cream. He didn’t develop a more sophisticated palette until college, where he became passionate about food — and cooking in particular. While Julia Child was an early inspiration, it was D.C.’s Eastern Market that sparked Bardzik’s culinary creativity. The historic market near Capitol Hill has long been the source of most of his weekly food shopping — about 90 percent.

In recent years, Eastern Market has also become the source of the 42-year-old’s new, very grown-up career — something that builds on his upbringing working at his family’s garden center and landscaping business, as well as his undergraduate degree in theater from Maine’s Colby College. He calls himself a combination cook, author and storyteller, though he’s known to most through the cooking demonstrations he gives outside Eastern Market most Saturdays from late-March to mid-November. Recently, those free demonstrations have become a springboard to paid demos for government agencies, trade associations, corporations, even private citizens.

Bardzik is also the author of two self-published cookbooks, including Seasons to Taste: Farm-Fresh Joy for Kitchen & Table, being released this month through Story Farm. He modeled the 320-page hardcover book after similar books by celebrity culinary entertainers he admires, from Rachael Ray to Ina Garten. The padded cover, which feels remarkably plush in hand, was inspired by the cookbooks of London-based vegetarian chef Yottam Ottolenghi. “You know, we don’t need books for content anymore,” he says. “You can get content electronically much more easily than you can in a book. So I figured, if it’s going to be a book, it’s got to be an experience. And just holding that cover in your hand feels good. It’s a really cool, tactile experience.”

Bardzik plans for continued expansion of his namesake brand and of his multifaceted business, Tarnow Entertainment LLC, a name that stems from his family’s gardening business as well as the town in Poland from where both of his parents’ families originate. Bardzik certainly values his family and his friends — pictures of whom populate both of his cookbooks. His fans, however, have also played a role in shaping the direction of his content.

“There was a mom and son who were already hanging out, watching me at the market,” he explains, noting that Tina and Archer are still active fans today. But it was Nancy Mendrala, his “third fan,” who would actively improve Bardzik’s brand. Four years after she joined Tina and Archer in watching Bardzik cook, Mendrala is Tarnow’s director of operations as well as his new book’s editor.

Of course his ultimate fan would be his husband, Jason Radlinger — at least, that is, when Bardzik isn’t cooking beets. “I have patently failed at finding anything he likes with beets,” he says of the man he shares a home with in D.C.’s Eckington neighborhood. “I think he just doesn’t like beets.”

Food by Jonathan Bardzik - Photo: Todd Franson

Food by Jonathan Bardzik – Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: How did you get started cooking professionally?

JONATHAN BARDZIK: This all started four and a half years ago. Life was pretty darn good. I was married to my husband Jason for about two years, living on the Hill right near Eastern Market, had a job I liked doing marketing for a trade association in horticulture. I took my brother out to dinner, we’re sitting at Tunnicliff’s right across the street from Eastern Market. I explained to him, “You know every Saturday when I come here and shop at the market, I think, if people knew what this food was and why it was so special and what to do with it, they’d bring more home and have more fun.” And he asked the magic question: “Why aren’t you doing that?”

MW: No one was doing that at Eastern Market before you?

BARDZIK: I’m the only one who does cooking demos there. They had no cooking demo prior to me. I walked into the manager’s office and said, “Could I do this?” And once he figured I wasn’t totally insane, he said yes.

My first live demo ever was at Eastern Market on the last Saturday in July of 2011. On a patch of dirt — no tent. I was literally icing down salad bowls by the end of the demo to make sure they didn’t wilt the greens, they had gotten so hot [in the sun].

MW: When did you quit your job and make culinary art a full-time pursuit?

BARDZIK: Almost a year and a half ago now. I do a lot of live demos — some are home events where, rather than coming in and just cooking for people, I will come in and cook with people. So we cook together, through a full dinner menu. And they learn some basic techniques and talk about ingredients and where you go grocery shopping, their favorite restaurants in town — just a kind of fun, casual evening. I do more and more corporate events. I did an eight-week stint with USDA this summer. I was in there one day a week doing a live cooking demo in their dining facility. But the weekly demo at Eastern Market is totally volunteer for me. It’s always been voluntary.

MW: The market or the farmers have never offered to pay for what is, essentially, marketing?

BARDZIK: No. It’s city-run, so that whole funding thing is much more complicated. They’ve been wonderfully supportive — just not financially. And I like the fact that it’s free. I like getting paid, obviously, for other things, but I think there’s something magical that we’re doing out there. There’s something about giving away food, it’s just so powerful.

MW: Your goal is to get more people cooking?

BARDZIK: I truly believe no one should ever have a reason to not go into the kitchen — including not having the ingredients that may be listed in a recipe, or feeling like you don’t have the technical skill. I think everyone should feel in every moment like they can go in with exactly the skills they have and put a wonderful meal on the table for the people who are eating with them.

MW: There are some people though that don’t have much interest in cooking, or feel like it’s not worth the time.

BARDZIK: And it does take time. I feel like that’s such important time though, and time that we’ve lost. Jason and I often hang out for an hour-and-a-half, two-hours a night during dinner prep. It’s where we spend a lot of time talking. Relationships take maintenance, and I think we’ve given up so much of that maintenance time to TV and iPhones, and just being so damn busy.

MW: How long have you two been together?

BARDZIK: We met in 2005. A mutual friend invited us to a Nats baseball game. We started hanging out throughout that summer. He came home with me that Thanksgiving. In 2008, I proposed to Jason while we were on vacation up in Maine, and we got married in June 2009. It was legal in Massachusetts, and I think the week we got back from our honeymoon, D.C. began recognizing marriages performed elsewhere.

Food by Jonathan Bardzik - Photo: Todd Franson

Food by Jonathan Bardzik – Photo: Todd Franson

MW: What are some ingredients to the relationship’s success?

BARDZIK: A little forgiveness and a lot of support. Jason is my joy and my strength in life. He gives me support I don’t deserve. We got married and both had these really stable, pretty regular association jobs. And mine started to take a lot more time, but to go to your husband and say, “Hey babe, I know we have these nice stable incomes, and lives kind of clean and orderly. I’m going to walk away from that and start a job as a culinary entertainer.” And he has just all along said, “I’m 100-percent behind you, I believe in you. You’re really good at this, go make it happen.”

MW: Does he come to your demos?

BARDZIK: He came out the first day to support me — but we realized that day that there was no way I could do this alone. And so he was out there every single Saturday for two years, on top of working his day job, washing dishes.

Finally, at the end of two years, I started finding some extra support. So he’ll come out for special weekends now.

MW: Your new cookbook is called Seasons to Taste, and it’s broken into sections based on the four seasons. Why highlight the seasons in that manner?

BARDZIK: I grew up in western Massachusetts, so seasons are really pronounced. The fall colors are so amazing. Winter is different from here. Winter is much colder and snowier, but it’s also a lot sunnier, there’s this amazing brightness to winter. Summer doesn’t quite have the oppressive heat that you have here, it’s just easier. But my family also owned a garden center, so our lives really were built around seasons. And growing up, food still was very seasonal. It wasn’t until somewhere in the ’80s where we started seeing this 12-month availability for a lot of ingredients. I started cooking really seriously in my early twenties, the mid-90s, and found that having these ingredients available all the time, they were no longer special. You know, December asparagus just doesn’t feel as special. You’ve got six weeks in the middle of spring. Enjoy it while it lasts.

When I started shopping at Eastern Market, I fell in love with the magic of that whole shopping experience — going out on a Saturday morning, filling bags, talking to farmers whose names you know. I began shopping almost exclusively there, and so my diet just naturally migrated back to seasonal. And when I started doing the demos, all the ingredients that I use every week are available at the market, with the exception of maybe a few pantry items. Everything that I cook is always seasonal food. And I’ve discovered it not only tastes better, but there is this almost circadian rhythm of food and then the seasons in our lives — it’s really special.

MW: Were food and cooking important during your childhood?

BARDZIK: When I was born, up until I was four or five years old, my mom baked all of the bread that we ate, and canned most of the vegetables we ate in the winter — corn and green beans out of the garden. It sounds so bucolic today — it was really because they had no money, and she just couldn’t afford to go to the grocery store every week during the winter, so she put up all this food. It was much cheaper to grow in her own garden. But it was a very bucolic way to live, a wonderful way to live, with all of this fresh, garden-grown produce. And then she was creative in the kitchen, so we would eat a lot of vegetarian meals.

I think we’ve lost so much cooking knowledge over the last two generations. Our parents — moms, and dads to a certain extent — learned basics. Those skills just aren’t getting passed down. I’m seeing some of that at the market — when people come in and they say, for instance, “I don’t know how to hold a knife and use it,” or “I am terrified with the thought of cooking chicken breasts in a pan.” The boneless, skinless chicken breast — admittedly, it’s not the easiest piece of meat in the world to cook. I see so much of what people are taking away from what I’m doing at the market as them connecting back to some really basic skills. They’re also getting comfortable with failure. This is just cooking. You’re going to screw it up sometimes. And the worst thing that’s going to happen is, you still get a decent meal out of it. Very rarely is something going to be so terrible you can’t eat it. And this should be fun — about finding joy in the kitchen, and sharing that with people who make your life matter.

MW: I’m guessing you’re the type of cook who likes to wing it and doesn’t fuss over specific measurements or following a recipe exactly?

BARDZIK: My photographer literally pulls the camera out every time I reach for a measuring cup — it’s a joke. I measure nothing. We jokingly talk, and this is looking more and more serious, about a book someday called Ish — which is about me measuring ingredients. How much? About a tablespoon-ish of this… I measure very little unless I’m baking.

MW: And I’m guessing you don’t love to bake.

BARDZIK: [Laughs.] I hate baking.

Jonathan Bardzik - Photo: Todd Franson

Jonathan Bardzik – Photo: Todd Franson

MW: You mentioned people need to be comfortable failing in the kitchen. I think a lot of people don’t want to waste time — if you’re going to take the time to make something, you want it to be perfect.

BARDZIK: See, I think that has become a problem. I’m not the academic expert to really go into this, but I think somewhere between the Internet and broad availability of information — the Food Network and everything else — we’ve decided that perfection is both attainable and our goal every single time. And I think it’s taken us out of just enjoying what we do with our lives. You know, “I’m going to put up a Christmas tree.” No you’re not. You’re going to go online, and you’re going to learn how to string lights, and what the right arrangement of ornaments is, so you get this same look as the catalog. It’s a Christmas tree — just have some fun. Or, you’re going to go make a cup of hot chocolate. Oh well, “where did your chocolate come from? And whose technique are you using?” Cooking should be fun. You are not in the kitchen managing a nuclear power plant — you’re just cooking. The downside of getting it wrong is an okay meal.

MW: But our culture overall has become consumed with striving for perfection, geeking out over even the most minute or trivial of things, and everything being “the best ever.”

BARDZIK: Everything — from “Am I listening to the right music?” to “How’s my home decorated?” It’s just become ridiculous. And I think at the same time we’ve lost respect for the joy of knowledge, which should make our life richer. I talked to somebody the other day who said, “I’ve had lots of hobbies and I stopped them all because I could never get them perfect.” And I think, just have fun.

MW: So cooking has become something of a lost art, is that what you’re saying?

BARDZIK: I think we take it too seriously. You know, everyone’s got to be a home chef. Being a chef is both about a skill level in terms of understanding food, but it’s also about a skill level in terms of preparing for the public. That’s not what you’re doing putting dinner on the table on Tuesday night. I truly believe that life can and should be lived well. And that should be accessible to everyone, regardless of means. It’s no more complicated than preparing a simple meal and sharing it with the people who make your life matter. We shouldn’t feel like there’s anything keeping us from doing that. If it’s a great grilled cheese sandwich and a really good bowl of soup — that’s fantastic. You don’t need to know the origin of your tomatoes, and you don’t need to know who made the cheese — that’s fun, I love when I know that, and I love when I taste a piece of cheese and can identify some tasting notes. But sometimes you just want to eat a grilled cheese and tomato soup on a snowy day and watch a movie.

MW: Do you ever eat fast food?

BARDZIK: Far too often. And I’m working on that. I totally understand the challenge of time. And when I eat it is typically when I’ve gone and cooked for someone else and I’m coming home at 10:30 at night and think, I am not going to cook dinner for myself now.

I’m working on it. It’s a discipline. We have cut way back on takeout and delivery. Six or seven years ago, we were on vacation in Lauderdale. We used to go down there pretty regularly. And the last night of our vacation we would always hang out in the pool of this hotel we were at. After a couple far-too powerful fruity rum cocktails, we would make promises we had no intention of keeping. Things like, I’m totally going to the gym every day when we get back. I promise to always change the toilet paper roll when it runs out. But this one year I said, “no more takeout or delivery.” Three months later, I’m at my front door grabbing a bag of General Tso’s chicken and some dumplings. I realized the only way I was going to get around this was to start to learn to make those dishes myself. And so I’ve spent a lot of time in the last five or six years learning how to make our favorite takeout at home. There are nights now I say, “I really want Chinese food.” Jason will just say, “You’re not ordering out because what you can cook is so much better.” And often just as fast.

MW: Do you do all the cooking?

BARDZIK: I do probably 99 percent of the cooking. I think I like it more. Jason is a pretty good cook. He bakes. And he bakes in the comfortable way that I cook.

MW: Do you think you’ll ever have kids?

BARDZIK: I don’t, only because of the choice that I made with this career and what it’s doing both in terms of time and economic stability. I have a niece and a nephew and a godson who I love spending time with. Jason also has said he doesn’t want kids, which perplexes me, because he’s amazing with them.

MW: Have you experienced any discrimination in your cooking career?

BARDZIK: Starting the demos at the market was the first time in probably seven or eight years I had to think about coming out to anyone. I’m suddenly standing in front of a crowd of 20 people and I’m about to tell a story about Jason. This was 2011, so this was when gay marriage was really hot and heavy as an issue in D.C. The whole use of the word husband was super-touchy at that time. I feel like that’s already become less of an issue.

So I’m up there thinking, alright, is Jason my roommate, my boyfriend, my partner, my husband — what do I call him in this story? I was having a conversation with my sister and she said, “Well, you probably should think about trying to appeal to as many people as possible.” Which was just enough to get me pissed off. To say, “Hell, no.” I thought, “What I’m really doing here is not cooking. I’m a storyteller. And being a great storyteller means shutting down your mind, opening up your heart, and just letting truth spill out.” I decided I’m just going to be totally open about this. And I’m trying to build an entertainment brand. If I’m not going to satisfy you, we should probably figure that out right up front and you can go find someone who is going to be much more satisfying for you — Rachael Ray is right over there, she’s talking about her hubby, enjoy it. And you know, I would definitely look at different people who I would stereotypically assume might be uncomfortable. I’ve never seen anyone blink an eye.

MW: So you’ve never had to hide your relationship with Jason?

BARDZIK: I made one mistake — my very first paid event, I think it was in my second year. I was hired by a local Baptist church. I kept wondering, should I tell them? What do I do with this? It got to the day of the event, and I hadn’t had the conversation with them. So I slipped off my wedding ring, because the first thing everyone says is, “Oh, you’re married. Your wife must be thrilled to have a cook in the house.” I went in and told one of the stories that I think I’ve told 200 times now, about farm-fresh butter — I started using farm-fresh butter, Jason notices how expensive it is and starts giving me ribbing about the cost of it. So I suggest doing a butter tasting — the farm-fresh butter is amazing, the grocery store stick butter tastes a little bit like greasy cardboard. And so Jason agreed, and we use farm-fresh butter all the time now.

So I told this story, but I used “my roommate.” And I realized at the end of the story, there’s something hilarious about your husband, your boyfriend, your partner, giving you shit about how much you’re spending on butter. Right? We’ve all had those ridiculous little spats in our relationships. There’s nothing funny about your roommate giving you shit about how much you’re spending on butter. They’re just an asshole. So I realized these things just don’t work if I’m just not truthful about them. This works because it’s about a relationship. And people relate to that.

I have two books now that are dedicated to my family and my husband. I love the idea that there are gay men and lesbians — anyone who feels disconnected, culturally or just in their life to their families — who can give something that I think feels very universal, but, “You know there’s a cookbook sitting on mom’s shelf that is dedicated from one man to his husband?” And I think that there is something quietly powerful about that.

MW: Although Seasons to Taste is not only dedicated to your family and your husband.

BARDZIK: And beets! [Laughs.] Yes. I was sending stories back to Nancy, my director of operations who also edited the book. And about six stories in she goes, “Do you mean to make the punch line of every single story the fact that Jason hates beets?” And I hadn’t noticed it at all. It just kept coming out. So at that point it became a through line. It shows up in six or seven places in the book. And when I got to the dedication, I just added that as a joke when I sent it over to my graphic designer, and he put it in with a picture of beets. And I said, this really looks fabulous, so we kept it.

MW: Would you like to have your own TV show? Your own restaurant?

BARDZIK: I think where I am right now is, my real joy in this, my real passion, is being out and communicating with other people. People have asked since day one, “When are you opening a restaurant?” I loosely group that in the “10 year or it’ll never happen” plan. If I can get to the point where my brand is meaningful enough that a restaurateur, who really knows how to start up and run a restaurant, wants to come in and say, “I’d like to leverage your brands to run a successful restaurant and design a menu,” I’d be 100-percent for that. But managing a restaurant successfully, in addition to creativity, it’s managing inventory and people. And that’s a very different job than being an entertainer.

MW: Is there anything you would point out at Eastern Market that people should try or buy?

BARDZIK: Yeah, the homemade sausages from Canales Meats are amazing. As basic as this is, the chicken at Market Poultry is unbelievable. I’ve known people who have eaten something as simple as a boneless, skinless chicken breast say, wait a minute, this is what chicken tastes like? It seems like such a staple, and it’s a totally different experience from the grocery store. Outside on the weekends, it depends on the season. Edible pumpkins, I love — the flavors are amazing, it’s so rewarding to cook with them. They’re one of those things — maybe it’s the gay equivalent of getting under the hood of a car, but there’s something about cutting a giant pumpkin, getting it in the oven, scooping out that flesh and feeling — just manhandle this heavy piece of produce. It’s gay manly. We’ll put five or six pumpkins up in the freezer for the winter.

Seasons to Taste

Cover of Seasons to Taste

MW: Short of knowing your supplier, and getting your food at the market, is there a particular grocery store you favor over another?

BARDZIK: I find great food at places as basic as Harris Teeter. I think the two main factors in buying produce are seasonal and local. There are a whole bunch of great reasons to buy locally, but in terms of flavor, food that is shipped over a long distance tends to be harvested before it’s fully ripened, and a lot of that last period of ripening when a bulk of the flavor and nutritional value develops. And so we get this underripe produce that is then fumigated to ripen them in a warehouse somewhere. And you don’t get the texture or the flavors — the sugars and acids don’t develop. So buying local produce means that it has been fully naturally ripened somewhere.

You can go to the grocery store in May and June and see these boxes of strawberries on sale, and they’re all from California, when we have great strawberries that are fully ripe right here in Maryland and Virginia. You just go, why are these here? And they don’t taste as good. When you bring fresh strawberries home from the market, they just blow your mind. The D.C./Virginia/Maryland area has more farm markets per capita than anywhere in the country. So we have incredible access to farm market-fresh food.

MW: So ultimately, we should stop going to the grocery store.

BARDZIK: What I believe most is that we should stop buying garbage food and start cooking more food from scratch at home, because it’s quick and easy. It doesn’t have to take a long time. Sauteing a chicken breast for dinner probably takes less time than waiting for a pizza to arrive. I don’t think anyone should ever feel like, “Boy, I can’t make it to the FreshFarms Market in Dupont Circle or to Whole Foods, and so I should order pizza instead of going down to the Harris Teeter tonight.” I still think you’re better off buying fresh ingredients. I would say stay out of most of the middle of the grocery store. It kills me that people are microwaving frozen dinners. That’s not food, and it doesn’t taste good.

I want people to cook more, and have more fun doing it in their homes. And I want them to share more time with the people who make their lives matter doing that. And if I can accomplish that in my life, I would be thrilled.

Seasons to Taste: Farm-Fresh Joy for Kitchen & Table ($40) is available for pre-order now at seasonstotastecookbook.com and for purchase beginning Dec. 1 on Amazon.com.

Jonathan Bardzik will offer his last cooking demonstrations of 2015 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21, at Eastern Market, 225 7th St. SE. He’ll also offer Thanksgiving advice at the market on Tuesday, Nov. 24, plus several demos and book signings elsewhere around town, including at the FreshFarms Markets in Dupont Circle and Silver Spring and Bear Happy Hour at Town Danceboutique. Visit facebook.com/WhatIHaventCookedYet for the full schedule.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.