Talking with Restaurateur Jonathan Insetta of Black Sheep Restaurant
1. Tell us about Black Sheep.
Black Sheep features hand crafted, American regional comfort food, with a touch of New World influences from South and Central America.
2. By "regional" do you mean Southern?
You'll see major influences from the South but you'll also see Northeast and West Coast. We also do things like our Ceviche which is done in a traditional Peruvian style. So, it's mostly regional American, but with snippets of New World stuff.
3. How does the food at Black Sheep compare to Chew or Orsay?
They have the same soul and core philosophy as far as the artisanal aspects of it. So at its core its the same but the difference is that Black Sheep has a more approachable price point. We're also more American. Orsay is French but does have some Southern influences. We see that in our Lobster Pot Pie - it's what's around us and what's influenced us. But the core of Orsay is French and the core of Black Sheep is regional American. We believe a lot in regional cuisine. We use purveyors like Benton's, who make our country ham. They make a very old school American style ham that's found in areas like Tennessee and West Virginia. We really believe in them. That type of ham has been around for a long time, over 100 years.
4. Who's the audience for Black Sheep?
It's for the modern eater. Our clientele is extremely diverse. We get everybody, from young kids to old blue bloods. We wanted to cast a wide net to get our cuisine out to a wide demographic of people. The fast casual lunch we have Mondays through Fridays is built for speed and efficiency. In today's economic climate people may not have as much time for lunch and they may not have the budget they had before. We want to be able to get them out at a good price point with a quality of product they typically wouldn't see at that price.
5. Is the weekend brunch done as a table service?
Yes. But the price point is designed to be more approachable. There are some lunch options on the Brunch to make sure we include that audience as well.
6. What attracted you to your location?
I used to live in 5 Points when I started culinary school here in Jacksonville. I've always believed in 5 Points as a Mecca for the youth culture in Jacksonville. It has its own Bohemian persona. I just felt that we would fit in great with the concept we were looking at.
7. Why did you build your own restaurant from scratch rather than taking over a place that was already built out?
I've never liked paying rent. I didn't expect the opportunity I have here for another 10 years down the road in my career. I was lucky enough to have it and to be able to build up on the property. The property is owned by my family. The idea was to be able to maximize the footprint and to pay for a mortgage instead of just paying rent.
8. Did you always have the idea of the rooftop bar or did that come later on?
That came out of looking at the space and trying to maximize the usability of the footprint. We knew it was something we really wanted to do. We weren't sure it would work from an engineering or legal point of view, but we thought it would be ideal for Jacksonville. I did my externship at a restaurant down in Miami and rooftop bars are extremely popular down there. The environment we had here really leant itself to that setup.
9. Was the idea of the rooftop bar to be a place for drinks before and after dinner or was it designed as a standalone space?
The idea was twofold. It was meant to be a place where you can sit down to eat. It's full service food up there. We engineered that from the beginning. We wanted the space to be an eating area from the beginning, which is why we built the dumb waiter into our plans. We also wanted to have a place where you could go to enjoy a drink or happy hour. At Orsay we have two distinct spaces, each with its own personality. We have a more feminine, relaxed, elegant space up front and a younger, more modern space in the back. Those two spaces attract different clientele, allowing for a broader audience. In the same way, we thought that having two spaces in 5 Points would allow for the two audiences - those who want to dine outside when the weather is beautiful, and those who just want to sit out for a drink. The environment up there is gorgeous, especially when the weather is great.
10. Will the rooftop area be open year round, or just during the warmer months?
That's the plan. We're not open up there for lunch so far. We're really learning as we go. As we go through the summer months we'll see if it's something we want to keep open for a longer period. At night it's really gorgeous, with the breeze up there, even when it's 85 degrees during the day. We'll need to see how it goes and if it's feasible to keep it open longer. That's something we're learning about as we go.
11. You've put a lot of effort into sourcing your food locally. Why is that important to you?
It's important to a lot of things. It's important from the standpoint of environmental impact and the carbon footprint involved when you're shipping food from long distances. It's also important to support those people who are doing great things locally. We've had a very mono-cropping agricultural community for a long time, which is very traditional. But now we're starting to see a lot of boutique farms that are growing some really great heirloom products. We get our chicken and eggs from Black Hog Farms, our bacon and charcuterie from Pine Street Market, and our ground beef from Cowboy Meats. We get our lettuce for both Orsay and Black Sheep from a place called Bacon Farms which is up near the airport in Jacksonville. They do beautiful artisanal greens. When you get things in season you know where its coming from, you know the process it's going through. You just have more knowledge about the food. The cool part about local is that when you develop these relationships with your farmers you can also have a dialog with them and they can grow what you're looking for specifically. That relationship with the farmer is extremely, extremely important.
12. What does buying locally do for the taste of the food you're preparing?
Well, eggs, for example, are important. We do a lot of things with eggs. We use local, farm fresh eggs. Commercial eggs may take 3 or 4 weeks to get to you. The whole time they're in storage they're also aging. It's just what happens. When you get a farm fresh egg you can see the difference in the color, the texture and the taste. A lot of people will say that our eggs taste better. They may not know why, but it's usually because it's a much fresher egg and a much better product. From the vegetable perspective you get to see a lot of stuff that may not be grown for broad line distribution. With broad line distribution you're getting things that are engineered to last a long time and to hold up while traveling and then being stored. With locally grown produce you're getting a much more natural product. For our Hamburger and Cheeseburger we only use grass fed beef. They're the only grass fed products on our menu right now just due to the cost. We do that at Orsay as well. Philosophically we have to pick our battles from a pricing standpoint. We can't price ourselves out of the market but we also have to find those moments when we can shine. I think our Cheeseburger is one of those examples. Grass fed beef has a little game flavor to it and a much, much cleaner flavor overall. It's what beef is intended to taste like. It's not going to have that greasy fattiness that you'll get from a corn fed burger - which a lot of people really enjoy - as I sometimes do as well. But grass fed beef is a much cleaner taste and our burger is the best way of showing an example of this. With a burger you can quickly and directly see the difference in the two products. If you have a corn fed burger one day and then come over and have a grass fed burger you'll inherently know the difference immediately. Then it's up to the consumer to decide which they like better.
13. For a first time visitor who wants to get a sense of what Black Sheep is all about, what would you recommend to show off what you do?
The Cheeseburger is a great example. We use bacon from a guy out of Atlanta who was originally born and raised in Jacksonville. He makes all of our charcuterie and salami that we use. If you're coming for lunch I'd definitely recommend the Burger. The Fried Green Tomato BLT is something that is really, really cool that we do and that I'm really proud of. For dinner, I really love the Short Rib dish and I love the Salmon dish. The Short Rib is braised and shows off our technique while being really warm and comforting as a dish. With the Salmon we do a crispy skin over some local shrimp with home made Parisienne gnocchi. It's a really, really gorgeous dish. We also make our pastrami in house. We showcase that on our Reuben at lunch and in a Pastrami Hash during brunch. We're one of the few places that makes pastrami from the brisket through to the end product. We've been doing that since Chew.
14. If someone's been to Black Sheep a few times and is looking to try something a little different, what would you recommend?
The Pork Belly appetizer is something I really, really believe in. It's an outgrowth of the pork belly we were doing at Chew. At the beginning when we opened Chew we were doing pork belly but people wouldn't try it just because it had the word "pork" and the word "belly." I think people were afraid of it. A friend of mine in New York said that when he changed his "Pork Belly" to "Fresh Bacon" it started selling like crazy. So we changed the name to "Fresh Bacon" at Chew and it started selling. But the rad part about the Jacksonville community now is that they're asking for pork belly, so there's no need to put the "Fresh Bacon" there anymore. We're definitely growing as a foodie scene as people are learning more and more. Other than the Pork Belly appetizer we're also doing Pork Rinds at dinner, which are really awesome. We also do a Chicken Liver Mousse. I call it the gateway mousse at Black Sheep. It's really creamy and elegant. It's not minerality up front. It's not an intense liver taste. It's just smooth and elegant. People who may have tried liver once, or even never before, will be surprised because it's a really different world when you handle the product properly and hit those notes that really make sense. I've had so many people who've never had liver before or tried it and hated it, then they try our Liver Mousse and really enjoy it.
15. What's the most popular item on the menu?
I'd say the Cheeseburger, Salmon and Short Ribs are our big sellers for dinner. Our Bar-B-Q Duck Sandwich and Mac and Cheese are also very popular. The Mac and Cheese is the same recipe we used at Chew, which is a really traditional, Southern style. For lunch, favorites change around more often. The Cheeseburger, Fried Green Tomato BLT, and Black Sheep Club are very popular, as are the salads, especially the Beet Salad. One item I have to mention for lunch is our Duck Banh Mi, which is very, very popular. It's not a traditional Banh Mi, but is our particular take on it. We do duck meat balls, but in the shape of a terrine, which is a paté. Paté is a traditional element of Duck Banh Mi. But we make an Asian spice which has ginger, garlic and lemongrass, and use that in a duck meat ball that's made from a duck breast. It's got a really nice mouth feel. The meat ball is also in the shape of a terrine and has a spicy mayo that is very approachable. The rest is pretty traditional. We make our pickled vegetables in-house. We use a lot of cilantro. When I was going to school in New York and had never had a Banh Mi before, I went to a small restaurant in Chinatown, just at the time Banh Mi was taking off and becoming a real foodie item. For a person who's never had a Banh Mi before, when they finally try it they realize why it's so awesome. It's unexpected, with things you wouldn't think to put together, but once you get it it just makes sense.
At lunch we get a lot of first time diners who are often attracted to something that's comfortable and familiar. They're just checking us out and want to stay on the safer side of the menu. I think that's really good. It gets them in our door and gets them to trust us. Hopefully they'll find that what they're trying is really good and they'll want to see what else we can do. Sometimes you need to build that relationship with your customers before you get them to try some of the things they might not have considered early on.
16. Do you have a favorite or signature item?
At brunch we do a Fresh Bacon and Eggs dish that is a dish I've been working on for a long time, since Chew. It's basically pork belly, grits, hot sauce elements and eggs. I'd eaten it at Chef David Chang's place, Momofuku, up in New York and it was made with quail and it just kind of blew my mind. So I thought we can do this with pork belly. We were working on this for a while and with our brunch menu I think we nailed it. We have a house made beurre rouge, which is a hot sauce element. We do 3 pieces of pork belly that we splice and cook like bacon on a flat top to crisp up each side. They're a good quarter of an inch thick. We brown them on both sides and put on beurre rouge and lovely grits that we do in-house with Wainwright cheddar. Then we do 2 perfectly poached eggs and serve it with a biscuit with a little bit of green onions on top. I think it's one of those things that just really comes together. I've been trying to do this for a long time and we finally made a few adjustments and it comes out really, really good.
17. Do you bake your own bread? We've heard really good things about it.
We do not. Bread is always a challenge. We use a few local bakeries like Village Bread right now. For both restaurants I try to pick and choose the best items from local bakers. We make our own buns at Orsay for our burgers but we try to limit what we make - it's pretty labor intensive.
18. Is there anything you have on the menu that has surprised you by its popularity?
I'd say the poutine is one of those things. We did it at Chew for a little while. When I was up in New York, going to Montreal I was hearing about poutine. I thought "whatever, it's just gravy and fries." When I finally had poutine I thought "what the heck is this!" They just use simple elements, but they use the best ingredients and put them together well. I think we capture that with our Poutine at Black Sheep. We went through a couple of different variations at Chew. We've now come back to a much more traditional style at Black Sheep. We use thick cut fries, Wisconsin cheese curds, and our home made pastrami. Our pastrami is a wet cure as opposed to a Montreal style dry cure but they're pretty similar end products. In Montreal they also use a little bit of bacon where we'll use our short rib. Our short rib gravy is really comforting with a luxurious feel to it. People freak out about it. The reason is that we try to keep it simple. We use products that make sense without straying too far from the poutine of Montreal. I tried to source Montreal cheese curds but I couldn't find a source that worked financially. We're trying to get one of our local suppliers to make our curds. People have really, really embraced it. It's definitely one of our best selling appetizers and it's one of the things people talk about the most on the internet.
I want to evolve the Poutine as well. We have ducks on the farm at Black Hog. I want to use a duck confit, foie gras and a duck egg drizzled on the poutine. I always Google new ideas I have and am saddened to find out it's been done 2,000 times. But, you'll probably see a duck egg in there some day. It's less traditional. We're taking the ideas and elements of stuff we have around us and that's awesome and applying it to a dish that's more traditional.
19. Can you tell us about your brunch?
It's table service. We serve it in the restaurant and on the roof as well. We have salads and a few items from our regular menu. Then we also have house-made breakfast sausage, a side of bacon and Benton's Country Ham. We currently have 6 entrees from the lunch and dinner menu and 9 items that are specific to brunch. The cool part about the items we chose from the lunch and dinner menu is that we could change them up slightly to make them into breakfast items. For example, if we add an egg to our burger it becomes a brunch item. Same thing with the BLT, just add an egg and it's more of a breakfast item. At the core though it's a menu we created just for brunch. I'm really proud of it.
20. Where did you learn to cook?
I started culinary school in Jacksonville at FCCJ when I was 20. I did well there and got a small scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I did my externship in Miami at the Ritz Hotel in a restaurant called The Gaucho Room. It's no longer open but at the time it was really fine dining, high end, high volume and really progressive, with awesome food. After that I came back to Jacksonville to work on a few projects that didn't happen and then out of the projects that didn't happen, that's where Chew came from. I wasn't ready to do my own restaurant, at least I didn't think I was, and then not being able to start on some of these other projects, I was looking downtown and luckily I was able to do Chew. That was my first independent restaurant that I did by myself. But I've worked in the industry for a long time now.
21. What made you want to be a chef?
I've always liked to cook. It's something I've always done, really since middle school and all through high school. My Mom is a big influence - she cooks a lot. We had our own garden. We actually had our own chickens. We lived in Mandarin but had chickens for a long time until the City told us to get rid of them. I just grew up in that environment. My Mom's a great cook and we ate a lot of stuff from the garden. We had the eggs from out front, which I had to collect every morning - which I hated doing. I was the only kid in my neighborhood who had to collect eggs. But it was a big influence in my life. I was also lucky to be able to travel a bit when I was younger. I got to see foods in different places, which is always exciting. When I graduated from high school it wasn't very typical to become a chef. It took a few years to research and find where to go and what to do. I started at FCCJ. I'm still good friends with the people there and they've been a huge influence on my career. When I went to CIA I was able to be exposed to a lot more stuff and got to drive to places like Montreal as well as local farms and orchards. I've felt like I wanted to be in the restaurant business for a long time. Even in high school my friends would joke about me opening a restaurant. And now it's come true.
22. What do you think the most important qualities are for a chef?
Passion and drive. Then organization and management skills. You need to start with passion for the product and really caring about what you do. With passion and caring you'll be able to overcome your shortcomings - you'll improve just because you care so much about it and put in the effort to get better.
23. What part of being a chef do you like the most?
Different things. I've got Executive Chefs at both Orsay and Black Sheep. At Orsay I'm working on the line whereas at Black Sheep I'm trying to take a step back to focus on the bigger picture. I'm still trying to find my comfort in that. I'm in the kitchen and I'm involved in the menu writing but I'm not as involved in the day to day cooking. I'm still coming to grips with that and with becoming more of a restaurateur. What attracted me at culinary school was the adrenaline of working the line. It was being able to accomplish something at night that you might not get a lot of credit for but that not many people can do and most people don't know how hard it is to do and to do it properly. You need to put food in the windows but it needs to be the right food.
24. Why Jacksonville?
It's my home town. It's a community I care about with people I care about. My family's here. When I moved out I never thought I'd move back, which is fairly typical for a lot of younger people from Jacksonville. But I realized how awesome it is here and how much the community means to me. I also thought I could be a force for positive change in a community I cared a lot about.
25. Where did you get the name Black Sheep?
Black Sheep was originally the name of the restaurant group. By "group" I mean "couple" - all 2 of us. We were coming up with a name as we were growing and Black Sheep is something I thought was inherently us. As we were looking for a name for the restaurant I really liked Black Sheep a lot. Guy Ferri, who was with us early on, convinced me that we could have the Black Sheep name for both. The restaurant didn't have to have a different name. I was just really in love with the name Black Sheep. I think it relates to America and to how we perceive ourselves as a country and how as individuals in any family unit you perceive yourself. I think everyone thinks they're the black sheep of their family in some way. The Rebel Without a Cause idea has a lot of that. It's just a big part of the American landscape. It's probably a big part of any country's landscape. It's that individual feeling that you're always the black sheep. That's part of the human condition and I think it fits well. Way back with Chew and when we were putting together the restaurant group, when we started going into print media and started playing with the name, the versatility of the BLK and the SHP and what we could do in print I found to be very intriguing.
26. Have you had any big surprises at Black Sheep?
Every day is a new opportunity. I've started calling challenges opportunities. At Black Sheep we're doing a lot of volume - it's been a lot more than I've done anywhere else in my career. What has been really inspiring to me is having an outstanding crew in both the front house management and back house management that has allowed us to do the numbers and volume we have at the level of consistency and quality we are being able to provide. Look, we fall short. We have our successes and our failures. But overall I think we're way ahead of where we expected to be in terms of quality and integrity. We still have a long way to go. We have a lot of growth and evolving to do. But it blows my mind when we can do a Friday night service with 600 orders. Those numbers, from a line cook's perspective, are mind boggling. To be able to keep up with our integrity and put out food that we are more than proud of really blows my mind. It's a compliment to our staff and management - from our servers, cooks … everyone. It's pretty killer what we're accomplishing now, as a group. I'm really proud of it and I hope that they are.
27. Have you ever thought of doing a food truck?
We have. For our sector it doesn't make as much sense. It's a good point of sale for us but a food truck is successful when someone is really committed to it and to the format of the food truck specifically. You see people going from food trucks to brick and mortar. Or you see in LA where people have food truck empires. From my perspective it's something that I don't know as well. About 4 or 5 years ago it was something I looked at pretty seriously. For me, I'm beyond stoked to see the food trucks in Jacksonville and what they can offer in terms of interesting things to eat. From the restaurateur side, as of right now, it's not something that's in our business plan. It would be more as a point of sale to let us do catering and other things.
28. Who's the audience for your catering?
We mostly do business lunch catering. We've done some pretty big events and have done well at them, but we're not set up in general to do large catering. Eventually we may go into full scale catering but I'll need to get the equipment to do that. It's a different ballgame. Our catering now is set up for business lunches and it has a really, really good menu. We're going to be getting delivery trucks soon and we'll be full bore promoting that side of it. We see it as a big growth possibility. I think we have an opportunity to offer a menu that's really different and appealing. So our core audience today is business lunches, Board meetings, celebrations, and that type of thing.
29. What do you think is next for Black Sheep?
Chew was originally designed for the fast casual concept. That's why you see the fast casual lunch at Black Sheep. The idea was to look at the fast casual sector and bring a much better product out at the same price point - to bring really great food out at a more affordable price point to a broader audience. That's what we're looking at. We want to take the lunch concept and bring out a stand alone restaurant based upon that as we evolve and grow the menu. I've been talking to my chef at Orsay about doing a taqueria. I've also been talking to my sous-chef at Orsay about doing a noodle bar. You'll see the direction it's going. If we don't do it at Orsay or Black Sheep you'll see it somewhere else in the city with more of an emphasis on fast casual, approachable food, but with the same core integrity of the product that we do now. I hate the term fine dining. Good food should be available to everyone, and it can be. It just has to be done well at a cheaper, more affordable price point.