STORIES

The Fine Dining Improvisations of Jonah Reider

By Trina Calderón on October 16, 2018

Jonah Reider was attending Columbia University when he manifested Pith, a supper club first held in his campus dorm room. Crowned the dorm room chef by his peers and later the media, Reider took his locally sourced, seasonally based menu to a nearby townhouse he rented in Brooklyn and has since hosted many in what he describes as improvisational social gatherings. Combining his creative senses with food is only a gateway for Reider as heavy-handed curation and atmosphere play a huge part in his aesthetic and genuine desire to bring people together. With a plan that combines great seasonal food, visual art, music and domestic design, Reider hopes to provide alternatives to the often exclusive and stuffy restaurant experience. Having previously spoke with PRØHBTD about his edibles company Alto, the young entrepreneur further discussed his views on cooking, cannabis and socializing food.

I heard you have a lot of people in your family who love to cook, but was it ever something that even registered in your brain, like, "Oh, I could be a chef" or "Oh, I want to open a restaurant"?

No, it’s funny. I never thought I wanted to be a chef. I was studying jazz piano for a while and thinking maybe I would be a musician. I was studying economics at Columbia and thinking that I wanted to be an economist. But it wasn’t until my cooking became very popular that I reflected on it, and I was like, "Wow, I could actually do this as a profession." But looking back, it makes a lot of sense. Everyone in my family is an incredible cook and in a relaxed, domestic way, really valuing the social component of dining. I remember growing up and having dinner with my family all the time, and my father is an amazing chef! He worked at a couple of restaurants in New York before I was born. But, he’s not a chef. He’s a museum exhibit designer, actually, at Boston Children’s Museum.

Oh, that’s interesting.

He's a really creative guy, extremely talented. And it's funny, a lot of times I feel that he's a better chef than me, and my mother, too, in many ways. I always think about how I think the best meals are happening in people's homes, never at restaurants. The greatest chefs are going to be hidden away in houses, serving just extraordinary dinners and experiences to people there.

It makes sense that I'm a chef. I love it. For me, it's like a great combination of business and art. And yeah, it's just a cool space to be in. It introduces me to a lot of interesting people to collaborate with who aren't in the food space. Yeah, everyone in my family is a great chef, really improvisational, but they're not doing it professionally.

How did you get hip to seasonal cooking?

I think looking at what other chefs were doing and, for me, noticing that the tastiest food, whether it's fancy or not, usually involves elevating pretty simple things by combining them in a smart way and changing a few things. Cooking is less about certain things always going great together and making really classic recipes, but making innovative food is easy if you're cooking seasonally. If your focus is on finding the best produce, it's very intuitive, again, to cook seasonally. Especially in a place like New York where the supply chain is amazing and extremely diverse. You can just get almost anything that you need to cook here. The best best ingredients are often what's seasonal at the farmer's market.

You named your Columbia supper club Pith, and then moved it into a townhouse in Brooklyn. I know what pith is, but what does it mean to you?

I chose it mostly because it's a nice four-letter word. It flows off the tongue, feels enticing, alluring. I chose it because in the culinary world, pith is the spongy white bitter part of citrus in between the zest, [a.k.a] the skin, and the fruit, [a.k.a.] the flesh. Chefs spend a lot of time separating those three components and then throwing away the pith. It's interesting because it's kind of nutritious. You can do some stuff with it, but also in English literature, pith means essence or essentiality or getting to the crux of something. I just liked the idea that it's a process of separating things, re-synthesizing them, changing them, and that is essential to cooking.

How has it changed since you’ve moved from the dorm into your own space, maybe having a little bit more control and obviously having more appliances in the kitchen?

It's amazing for me to have this supper club now, which can exist anywhere. You know, Pith is about bringing a group of people together for a delicious meal. It's something where they're gonna be exposed to other people, where they're sharing the meal with other people. The environment is curated by me, from the food to the pottery. I like doing it everywhere. I've traveled around doing it. I've been doing it at the townhouse in Brooklyn for a long time. I think I'm gonna be taking it to some new super exciting spaces this year.

But it's interesting because, in doing it for so long, I know now that I don't want to be a chef in the traditional sense. I'm not looking to open a restaurant and be the guy in a white apron at the back of the kitchen making food all day. I have so much respect for people who do that, but for me, the concepts that work are less about serving as many people as much food as possible, and more about inspiring and empowering people to have really great meals. Whether that means making content about cooking and eating, or hosting dinners, or creating some random concepts.

Right now I'm really hyped on PB&J. I'm making a PB&J restaurant this year in New York, a little pop-up. Doing the supper club for this long has been extraordinary, but it's also reinforced this pre-existing understanding that I didn't really wanna be a traditional chef either.

It’s amazing when people connect through dining. And if it isn't just food, as you’ve mentioned, how do you see people connecting?

To me, food is such a great medium for connection because it's so ephemeral. I feel almost no other art form completely disappears after it's enjoyed. Everything else you can take a photo of. People do take photos of food, but you really can't capture the experience.And so because of this, when a bunch of people sit down for a meal, whether it's good or bad or awkward, it's always very memorable. Because it's an experience that you're having.Especially if the food is good, it's really memorable. When you're looking at such a delicious appetizing plate and you're sitting with great people, it's a really gratifying moment. Specifically, in my space, it's great to bring people around a communal table for dining. And everyone's sitting in the backyard together first, having appetizers.

Beyond the world of food, I think there are a lot of opportunities to create. I'm working on a concept now that is something for the art space. It's going to be a small gallery, and it's only going to showcase furniture, pottery, silverware and all those things that you need to dine. No visual art or sculpture, just pure conceptual art. Different dealers in galleries are going to loan maybe 20 pieces or so from their collection as a single, cohesive collection with some sort of territorial take or similarity. For a certain amount of time, this space will serve delicious snacks using all this art and offer an experience for people who want to live with art instead of looking at it.

And then, hopefully, we'll also facilitate the sale of art. So that is trying to make something like going to a gallery or a museum just infinitely more stimulating and ephemeral, and thus hopefully connecting.

You’ve talked about trying to make dining almost like an equal opportunity experience. I love how you’ve mentioned the idea of a restaurant cooperative. Do you think that you can do that, and how would you do that if you could?

Yeah. That's something that I've thought so much about. I don't think I'll ever fully resolve some of the inherent conflict. If you're in the food world and, say, investors are contacting you and offering to help you open a space, those people have an inherent disinterest in the company being owned by workers. They're trying to own the company, and that's why they're giving money. And there's a lot of complications. And every time I'm doing work or doing projects, I guess I'm thinking about that. And what I'm thinking about is grander concepts that will require a more formal structure to be set up. I'm always thinking about how can you create equitable enterprises, and create something that's not just feeding the community and providing good experiences, but also concretely affecting the community in a positive way. That includes the people who interact with this, whether they're the consumers or the suppliers of the experience. Whether they're coming as a client or coming as an employee.

There's a lot of opportunity to use food as an avenue for positive social change. I was running an after-school program out of the house that I was doing Pith in for a long time, for all of last year. And it was a really interesting opportunity for me to apply a lot of the thinking I had been doing about social justice in a more tactile way in something that was near and dear to my life. So it was great fun to have a handful of middle schoolers over every week and talk about cooking and technique and where food comes from. Teaching all sorts of skills, from things regarding health or learning about the environment, learning about money management, whatever. Food is such a cool way to bring together a lot of different people and then actually talk about important topics.

I guess more broadly, I see the food world being something that I can use to affect positive change.

You've done a 420 menu in the past—probably at your dorm and maybe at the townhouse, too. What was your inspiration? Were you all about doing infusions, or did you incorporate flower in a different way?

I love cooking with cannabis, mostly just because I think it's one more thing that can positively impact the social element of a meal. And for me, this is why I think... it's the same base reason why people like to eat in the first place, why eating is so pleasurable, rather than just a necessity. It's why people like drinking while they're eating.

I think a lot of dining experiences that feature cannabis do it too heavy-handed. Just the food itself, often, I think doesn't taste... maybe the focus is not placed on the food, is maybe what I'm trying to say. And that instead of looking at cannabis as an optional way to really elevate a dining experience, it's people who are like, "I love cannabis so much that I wanna eat with it. I wanna see a movie with a lot of cannabis. I wanna go for a walk with a lot of cannabis. I wanna have a dinner with a ton of cannabis."

I love cannabis. I use it regularly. And I had been to a lot of cannabis dinners where I felt I was getting way too high. I feel people weren't coming to have a really great experience, but just to have a cannabis-centric experience. I thought there would probably be a lot of people who had experiences like me. And most people I talk to don't really want to go to a cannabis dinner. They feel even more strongly than I do. But I've made cannabis edibles for a long time. I was making some granola bars for a while, while I was meditating on this concept.

What does curation mean for you, and how are you inspired?

Generally, something that brings me a lot of happiness is always trying to think carefully about stuff I'm consuming and using, and how to select. It brings me a lot of joy to select things that I think are really nice and present and share them with people. It feels like an easy way to express myself and for people to understand me. In the realm of food, some of the best cooking, in a way, is when someone finds a product that they love that's extremely delicious, and they just fucking open it or slice it and put it on a plate and share it with people. You can bring an amazing cheese to a dinner party or a hot sauce that you made or whatever. And it'll just be a really meaningful contribution. I like that.

But then, outside of food, it's gratifying just to pick plates, glasses and lighting. I see all of these things as an important manifestation of who I am. It makes me feel good to pick stuff when I'm creating an experience that I care about. I think a lot of other people have similar experiences. I think it's like when people like fashion and picking clothes that represent them. I feel similarly about this curatorial element of cooking.

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