Ask Jon Newman when he first became passionate about food, and he’ll tell you it’s been since day one. “I came out of the womb with a wooden spoon,” he insists. “I have pictures of me just a couple years old… my mom would sit me down with flour and water, and I would mix it up and stamp it out like cookies.”
Newman, butcher and charcuterie chef for The Southern Steak and Oyster and Southernaire Market in Nashville, Tennessee, has worked in kitchens for most of his life. He got his first job when he was just fifteen years old at a pizzeria in Jenison, Michigan.
“I remember I would ride my bike there,” he recalls. “I’d get done with school, do some homework, head straight to work and start learning how to toss dough, use the table grinder and mix sausages and whatnot.”
By his senior year of high school, Newman could practically run the shop on his own. It was his aptitude in the kitchen and growing passion for food that inspired him to pursue an education in the culinary arts.
Newman attended culinary school at Grand Rapids Community College for two and a half years, meanwhile working full-time at a local restaurant and even participating in an externship in Sun River, Oregon. When the externship was over, Newman returned to Grand Rapids where he met his wife, Rumalda. The two were married soon after and decided to start a new life together in a new city.
Newman and his wife rolled the dice and moved to Charleston, South Carolina with no jobs, no house and only $2,000 to their name. At first, Newman struggled to find work. But after doing some research, he made an interesting discovery. “I found out that [Charleston] was a food Mecca,” he says.
Newman got a job at a restaurant called Cypress, where he was introduced to the world of charcuterie by Executive Chef Craig Deihl. “Craig Deihl had some of the best charcuterie I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” he recalls. “He had a 15’x15’ cooler, and every single square foot was full of hangings, prosciuttos and all these other things.”
He worked at Cypress for a year and a half, all the while staging an extra twenty hours a week at McCrady’s, a fine dining establishment owned in part by James Beard Award-Winning Chef, Sean Brock.
“I worked for free all the time,” Newman says. “I wanted them to see my face and how eager I was. I would be in the back shucking garbanzo beans and hulling green peanuts and just watching.”
Thankfully, all that shucking paid off. One evening, after Newman had finished his shift at Cypress, Brock approached him with an opportunity. The chef was opening a new restaurant in Charleston called Husk, and he wanted Newman as one of his sous chefs.
Newman joined Husk in 2010, were he learned what cooking could truly be. “I [was] working with some of the finest chefs in the world,” he says, “local dudes, true southern boys who just knew how to throw a pig on a pit and have it come out like butter…You knew where that bean came from, you knew that it came from that farmer. You knew that he’s had that bean in an heirloom varietal for generations. You could trace the lineage of a greasy bean back to when his father was a child… It gives me goosebumps.”
While at Husk, Newman cultivated his interest in charcuterie under the care of Chef de Cuisine Justin Cherry. “I was riding on his coattails,” he says, “tasting his flavors, understanding his percentages and doing my own percentages on salt and flavor profiles.” Newman even learned how to break down whole pigs. Eventually, his opportunity to work as a sous chef at McCrady’s finally came, and of course he took the job.
But a few years ago, he and Rumalda relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. Newman earned a position at a restaurant called Flyte, where he was able to work exclusively on fermentation, butchering and charcuterie, sharpening the skills he would ultimately use to begin his own charcuterie program at The Southern Steak and Oyster in 2015.
Watching Newman work is mesmerizing to say the least; he takes great care in making each cut, brine and cure, and the end result is nothing short of amazing. But when I ask him where he sees himself in five years, he says, “I’m going to be doing my own thing.” While he’s happy starting the charcuterie program for The Southern, it isn’t where he wants to stay.
“I’d like to start my own little restaurant,” he admits. And while he’s still ironing out the details of that dream, he continues to hone his craft.