Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Kill It, Grill It

Like a fine machine, Bonnell’s keeps hummin’, thanks especially to its owner, chef, and namesake


Jon Bonnell is a man with a plan. He hopes to franchise his talent in the manner of star chefs like Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles. He knows the formula: Open a restaurant, get good buzz, write a cookbook, pitch it to the Food Network, and then appear on local morning shows whenever asked.

But empire building will have to wait. Boy wonder Bonnell, 32-year-old chef/owner of the thriving restaurant that goes by his surname, spent last weekend crawling through the underbrush of a family ranch in Oklahoma, clutching a rifle and a turkey call because he is also responsible for bagging a wild bird for his clan’s Thanksgiving. “The pressure is on,” he explained, “because I’ve shot a wild turkey every Thanksgiving since I was 14.” Not that the extended Bonnell family needs his marinated and smoked wild turkey — there will be plenty of food on his family’s table, like his mom’s cornbread stuffing, an aunt’s mushroom casserole, freshly shucked oysters, and pumpkin cheesecake. But it’s tradition.

Bonnell is a third-generation Fort Worthian with a fine education (he’s a graduate of Vanderbilt University), who originally chose teaching, not cooking, as a profession. He took a job as a math and science teacher at the Winston School in Dallas. School principal Richard Hayse says Bonnell was a great teacher — who was always talking about “cooking and hunting.” Another former school colleague also complimented Bonnell’s teaching — but remembered him for his dishes at staff potluck meals. The switch, it seems, was inevitable. “I liked teaching,” Bonnell said, “but wasn’t passionate about it.”

During his off hours, he was a Food Network junkie, watching programs and reproducing the dishes he saw on the tube. “I could do everything these guys could do, so I started researching how they got their start,” he said. Most of us would be content with being the best cook in the neighborhood, but not Bonnell. His research led to culinary school. He visited three and received some important advice. “Although most schools had an open admissions policy, I was told I’d better spend a summer working at a restaurant,” Bonnell said. He got a job at Mediterraneo, a three-plus-star Italian restaurant in Dallas.

In that summer of 1995, he learned the difference between one casserole for a teacher potluck and the kind of cooking done in a high-volume restaurant kitchen. “Everybody thinks they know how to cook, but when I saw 250 covers go out a night, I knew I didn’t know anything.” He worked at the end of the “line,” on cold appetizers and desserts. In the hierarchy of the kitchen, he was just a step above prep chefs and dishwashers. “The hours were ridiculous, 2 p.m. until 1 a.m.,” he said, “but I loved it.”

Mediterraneo chef de cuisine David Woodward recalled his days with Bonnell. “When he first started he was a bit of a mess,” he said. “He had a long way to go, but he did it. He had natural talent.” Woodward eventually wrote the glowing recommendation that cinched Bonnell’s admission to the New England Culinary Institute.

After graduating from the grueling two-year program, Bonnell interned at Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans. Back in Fort Worth, he paid his dues as a personal chef to several people and families, and then at Escargot and Randall’s Cheesecake Factory. Actually, he perfected many of his recipes as a personal chef and still enjoys cooking in other people’s homes.

It’s a long stroll from enjoying the cooking process to opening a restaurant — and a leap of faith to get into an industry where businesses have a five-year life expectancy and 90 percent failure rate.

But the restaurant that bears his name does well and is well-regarded. It serves wild game, regional seafood, and cheese grits to die for. Let the other chefs look to the Southwest or the West, Bonnell wraps his arms around Texas and its neighbors, with foods from the Lone Star State, influenced by Louisiana and prepared with the discipline and precision that come from classical culinary training.

He has found a niche — fine Texas cuisine — and a price point ($15.95 to $36.95 per dinner entrée) that thus far has insulated him from the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of hip, trendy restaurants. The cuisine is as close to true Texas as you’re likely to find. Chickens come from a farmer in Dennison, axis venison and antelope from the Hill Country, and Bonnell incorporates local produce and cheeses whenever possible. The steaks come from premium Hereford beef and are cut by hand (insuring a juicier product).

Bonnell is also about as accessible as a small business owner can be. He supervises the kitchen and always works the room. If you want a recipe, just ask. “I don’t keep any secrets in the kitchen,” he said. Bonnell is the kind of guy who takes blame and gives his praise, but as a chef/owner, he can’t always spend as much time in the kitchen as he likes. “When I want to be creative, I can jump back into the kitchen and do it,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in my kitchen staff.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the family faith seems well-founded. There will be wild turkey — hunted, killed, and cooked by Jon — on the table again this year.

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