Jonathan Renert took the long route to opening his first restaurant.
The 42-year-old chef-owner of West SoHo's Union Bar & Kitchen, which opened in May, is a San Diego native who worked his way through the staples of the California food scene: seafood and Mexican street fare. While attending university in Japan, he trained outside of the classroom with everyone from dairy farmers to a sake master.
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After a long detour into finance, Union Bar & Kitchen, at 300 Spring St., is the sum of all those influences, with a focus on seafood and clean, simple presentation. The Three Little Pigs pork belly sliders three ways are a must, as is the creamy and bright guacamole, hamachi tartare, and save room for the peanut crunch chimichangas. The bar doesn't waste its taps on the usual fare, and the cocktail menu reads like a speakeasy.
Metro chatted with Renert about giving his American fare a worldly spin.
You've had a diverse career in food. What drew you to the business?
I originally got into it to pay for my extracurricular activities in high school, and found that I loved cooking and working in the restaurant business. Even when I was in other lines of work, I always kept at it.
What was the most important thing you learned from each cuisine?
Take care in what you do and be organized.
Why did you go to Japan for college?
I wanted to learn a language, and the only way to learn a language is to live in a country. I walked into a couple of restaurants in the neighborhood I was living and explained my background and interest in learning more. They were gracious enough to give me a shot.
How was the experience of being a foreigner in Japan?
Being able to speak Japanese and showing interest and making the effort is what allowed me to learn all the secrets to all the Japanese cooking that the world loves so much. Obviously, there were hard times, but it was fun.
Why did you decide to leave food for finance?
I came back from Japan to San Diego, worked in one of the better sushi restaurants for a while and went to business school, trying to figure out what I want to do. I eventually got my MBA from NYU, and spent 18 years in finance.
What lured you back to cooking?
I never really stopped. I would cater friends' parties, I would do my own - I always wanted to go back, but sometimes what you want and what you're able to do are two different things. I finally had to get tired enough of finance and get enough courage to go for it.
Why open your restaurant in New York?
I spend a lot of time here, I love the city, my wife is from here, and hopefully weíll have restaurants and other locations, but this is the place I live and love, so why not here? If I can make it here...