Food Nerd: Chef Jonathan Landeen

40 years after first tying on his apron, Chef Jonathan Landeen is still having fun.

There’s one thing you can say about Chef Jonathan Landeen–well, actually there are a lot of things you can say about the man with the large moustache and a hearty laugh–but one thing for sure: after 40 years wearing a cook’s apron, he still enjoys what he does.

“It’s fun to do something you’re comfortable with, and for me, this is easy and a good artistic outlet. I love to eat and I can cook just about anything, so it all works out OK,” says the owner of Jonathan’s Cork (formerly Cork and Cleaver).

The Nebraska native got transported to Tucson as a youngster in the late 1950s when his doctor dad set up a practice here. Landeen, the son, bounced around for a number of years in a variety of jobs–door-to-door Fuller Brush sales; lifeguarding; a laborer at Grant Road Lumber, and a distributor of adult beverages for Findley Distributing–until he ended up in New Orleans working at Commander’s Palace with Cajun cuisine chef Paul Prudhomme.

Back in Tucson in the late 1970s to help open Charles Restaurant and then bang pots and pans at The Lodge at Ventana Canyon, Sweetwater Café, and The Solarium, Landeen bought the Cork in 1994. After more than 22 years there, he’s apparently doing things right. “The boss [his wife, Colette] says I can stay,” he says, laughing.

The casual and comfortable facility at the Tanque Verde/Wilmot/Pima intersection has remained much the same over the years. “We’ve kept it like a throwback to the 1960s-70s,” he says. “Ceilings are low. It’s dark with wood features in a homey Southwestern setting with four beehive fireplaces. We have a menu that works and hasn’t changed much in two decades.”

That menu offers hearty fare ranging from fresh seafood to lots of Angus beef and specialties like buffalo and ostrich. “We may be one of the last places in town where you can order ostrich off the menu, a tender fan-cut steak.”

Landeen has always opted for the unique to match his own out-of-the-box life philosophies, like serving a full Thanksgiving dinner, from turkey and trimmings to cranberry-rhubarb jello mold and pumpkin pie, in the triple-digit heat of July – just because he had a hankering for turkey and didn’t want to wait.

Turkey is still a central theme for him after cooking two birds as part of his summer Patio Pig promotion. “I had the giblet leftovers from two turkeys–hearts, livers, gizzards–so I ended up making ten turkey pot pies for the next time I get a craving.”

What’s the weirdest thing in your refrigerator right now?

“Well, those ten turkey pot pies look a bit strange sitting next to some homemade gravlax (raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, and dill).”

The food item you’re most likely to splurge on?

“Probably unusual seafood items like gooseneck barnacles, the stranger the better; i.e., if I’ve never had a particular food before, why not? Probably the most expensive thing I eat regularly is uni because I love sushi.”

Would you rather cook or be cooked for?

“I’d rather be cooked for because it happens so seldom. And I’m not a food critic when somebody else does the cooking. If I like it, I eat it.”

Snack food you can’t get enough of?

“French fries if they’re done correctly. I get them instead of onion rings which are now a most disappointing food with thick batter and uncooked onions. They’re mass-produced instead of making them in-house.”

Are eating patterns changing?

“Absolutely. We see more vegetarians now as well as people who are gluten-sensitive. Portion size is also changing. We still serve large portions, but we’re seeing a number of regulars who now come in and split an entree.”

Landeen has seen a lot of changes in his industry and worries that increased regulations may have a negative impact. “Eventually, there will be fewer small, full-service dining houses run by people who have an actual interest in the business. I recently drew a map of every place to eat that surrounds our restaurant. The good news is I’m about the only dinner house within my vicinity. The bad news is I’m about the only dinner house within my vicinity.”

And if the day comes when it’s all too much? “I’ll be ready to retire when bad days start to outweigh the good ones and I don’t have a sense of humor at work anymore. I’ve been doing this since 1976 and it’s not like I’m tired of cooking; what I do get tired of is the day-to-day detail of running a restaurant, like worrying if the ice machine is broken.”

When that day does come, Landeen says, “We love to travel, and hopefully we’ve got enough friends scattered around the country who will invite us to stay and they’ll do the cooking.”