As we continue to mourn the loss of so many of our city’s restaurants and their contributions to our communities, one wonders what will hold this industry together. COVID-19 has amplified the existing problems in this craft and revealed a floor to ceiling closet of skeletons: Restaurant workers don’t have healthcare or competitive wages and often lack any kind of safety net. COVID-19 has also magnified the tenacious and creative performance of some of the nation's most talented chefs and operators.
A spotlight has landed on the queue of men and women who will ultimately step into leadership roles within their own restaurants and kitchens of Dallas. Much like the stratospheric athletes who compete because of an unquenchable competitive fire, these people never laid down their knives or pens during the pandemic. They pulled to-go programs out of the ether while rallying teams to perfect the art of the pivot. We find a throughline in their efforts and inspiration in their stories.
At 19 years old, Dallas native Jon Griffiths found himself living with a friend in California, working in a warehouse where he packaged toothbrushes and shavers for $8 an hour. Today, he’s preparing sushi at some of Dallas’ top spots.
But back then, like a lot of young men, Griffiths was admittedly adrift.
He had no concrete plans but had considered pursuing a career in music. At the time his culinary prowess ended at scrambled eggs, and the majority of his meals came in the form of microwaved dinners. But, culinary school proved to be a much cheaper option than music, so he applied and hoped for the best. He was accepted into The Art Institute of San Bernardino and started out quite well, maintaining a 3.5 GPA., even earning a place on the dean’s list.
About a year and a half into the program, he received a call from his mother about some medical complications, which led him to return to Dallas.
He was able to transfer with the Art Institute from San Bernardino to Dallas, where he took care of his mother while working at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse as a part-time prep cook and dishwasher.
Buying all the groceries and cooking every meal for the household, Griffiths was juggling caretaker responsibilities, his first restaurant job and his culinary education. Culinary school lost in the battle of priorities. Griffiths was devastated when he lost his mother shortly thereafter.
He worked his way up to the fry station at BJ’s but describes his performance there as awful; he was never able to manage more than two or three tickets at a time. While treading water at BJ’s, the power of tribe kicked in. Griffith's father had a friend Dave who was the general manager at the original Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse.
He also happened to play in a band with chef Dean Fearing.
Griffiths interviewed with Dave and got a job, keeping his head down as a “glorified cashier” without many cooking responsibilities. Occasionally he would pull the ribs from the smoker and rotate the briskets, then work the cash register until it was time to pull the brisket out for the night. After about six months, he approached his manager and confessed his intention of using the connection to get his foot in the door at Fearing’s. The manager gave him his blessing and got him an interview. Fearing’s hired him at the lowest-ranked position in the kitchen, and he eventually worked his way up to the hot line.
The Fearing’s team realized Griffiths had an affinity for Japanese cuisine and eventually asked why he hadn’t pursued it. He didn’t have an answer, but the question created a spark.
He started researching the sushi scene in Dallas and learned of Sushi Bayashi, which then would soon open at Trinity Groves. A visit to the construction site revealed that it would be a while before they opened for service, and a Facebook search revealed a page with no activity and no friends. Griffiths was the first.
When Sushi Bayashi opened, he made it a weekly visit. On his first stop, chef Yuki Hirabayashi exclaimed, “You! You’re Jon Griffiths! You were my first Facebook friend!”
Griffiths and his wife would always sit directly across from the chef and take it all in. The fish, the rice, the knife skills were all in a language he was eager to speak. Several times during the visits, he made it known to the chef that he wanted to leave Fearing’s and join the Sushi Bayashi team.
Several times he was told, “We are not hiring sushi chefs right now.” About six months into his weekly visits, he walked in with a rolled-up copy of his freshly updated resume. As he sat across from the chef, Hirabayashi asked: “Is that your resume?” Griffiths nodded as he handed it over. He paused, took the resume and threw it in the nearby trash, still rolled.
“You start on Tuesday,” he said.
Griffiths worked there, learning sushi, for a year and a half.
It’s been several years since his cashier days at the barbecue joint. Since then, he’s been honing his craft at Uchi, Knife, Flora Street Cafe, Uchiba and now Namo. Each restaurant has given him a broader view of the culinary universe.
He sustained a major injury during the journey, too. One day, when moving a little too fast, he grabbed the blade of his knife thinking he was grabbing the handle. The injury required a nine-hour surgery to reconstruct the severed tendons in his middle finger. He lost three months of work during recovery. According to the doctors, he was lucky.
Griffiths has a loyal following of a dozen or so guests who seek his flavor pairings. A memorable one is his Japanese black bass crudo with a black tea sauce, made from black garlic oil, liquid nitrogen frozen blackberries, black mint, bronzed fennel and squid ink tuile. Another favorite has been his steak and eggs nigiri, which is waygu beef, sea urchin and cured egg yolk.
In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, Griffiths remains positive about his trajectory in Dallas. He’s learning more than he expected from Namo executive chef Jorge Dionicio, and he expected to learn a lot.
“We’re figuring how to communicate better with the masks. New day, new thing to work out. I feel like that’s the story of everyone lately. You do something for two weeks and then we change the way we are doing everything, completely,” Griffiths says.