An extensive menu, well-trained staff, and desire to keep people happy has been building for over two decades. A little time off now and then couldn't hurt.
Jonathan Landeen and his wife Colette are just back from a month touring northwestern Italy, having spent a better part of their time wine tasting in Siena.
Landeen can finally take a couple months off from restauranteering now and again. After all, he and his team have spent 25-years coaxing his eastside institution to a steady cadence, and he can simply relax. Or his rendition thereof, anyway.
Landeen’s restaurant, Jonathan’s Cork, is known for seasonal menu items that are unavailable elsewhere locally. Escargots, venison, ostrich, farm-raised Scottish salmon, liver and onions, and bison arrive in his kitchen daily from ranches and farms, rivers, oceans, and lakes.
While specializing in game, that’s not all the restaurant serves. The sautéed mushrooms, spiral macaroni and cheese, shrimp scampi, and New Orleans-style bread pudding (with pecans and blueberries, not raisins) are regulars’ and first-timers’ go-tos alike. This is comfort food with a well-curated wine list to pair.
“We have a fairly extensive menu,” Landeen said, “partially because we have a lot of regular [guests]. And we leave it extensive because people like to have choices when they come in.”
When he took over the restaurant — then the Tucson Cork — from Bill Hillenbrand in 1994, Landeen said that he wanted to feature all sorts of wild foods from throughout Arizona — foods most people might not associate with the state.
“I’ve cooked every animal that you can shoot in the state of Arizona — elk and wild turkey, and all the fish. It’s nice to have that available for people who are traveling and want something special but we are basically a steak and fresh fish house with at least three fresh fish specials every day.”
That night he had halibut, cabrilla, salmon, and tuna. There’s a local supplier he can call at 10 a.m. and have fresh fish that same day, so he doesn’t have to stock up or order too far in advance. “With fresh seafood, that makes a lot of difference,” he said.
The restaurant makes all their own desserts. While it’s not the best-seller, Landeen had the Apple Cake with Caramel Sauce for his 69th birthday in late October.
“The best seller is the creme brulee,” he said, “and we always have homemade cheesecake.”
The relaxed Western nouveau decor matches the menu. DeGrazia prints hang in the restrooms and dark nooks scattered throughout the tucked-away building.
The Landeens’ 35-year-old son is an outdoor photographer — you might find one or two of his pieces as well.
Fireplaces are scattered throughout. It’s romantic, but not heavily so. It’s equally appropriate for watching sports, talking business, or celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Although Landeen spends less time laboring on the restaurant line, his culinary creativity shows no indication of slowing.
Currently, he is diversifying his wine list — no doubt inspired by his most recent trip to Italy; creating new specials and menu items; and orchestrating what he called his seasonal “wacky catering” endeavors.
“Landeen’s secret to keeping such a reliable staff is treating his personnel like they are family, and even making family-based hires.”
The key to success
The philosophy that has led to Jonathan’s Cork’s success, Landeen says, is keeping people happy. He doesn’t just mean his loyal guests, though he noted that long-time regulars are indeed the driving force of his business.
“You can hear them sitting at the bar giving advice about what mechanic to go to. They’ll tell you everything you want to know about Tucson,” he said.
But it is his staff that allows him the freedom to live the golden semi-retirement life he now chooses. He said that as long as the staff is well-supported and happy, he can rest easy.
“I have at least three people who have been here more than 20 years,” he said. “This happens to be a time when we are well staffed with good people in every position. Even my short-term guys have been here two or three years.”
Landeen’s secret to keeping such a reliable staff is treating his personnel like they are family, and even making family-based hires.
Get out to Jonathan's Cork and play a round. We're open Father's Day from 5pm. (Jonathan and his father, Fred, in 1988.)
He noted that small independent businesses have “much more flexibility in dealings with individual staff members. So, if someone has a personal problem — financial, family, something that they have to deal with — we have people willing to fill in because they can identify that something like that might happen to them, too.”
He truly admires the skills and personal values that solid restaurant workers possess and tries to reward them appropriately.
Jonathan’s Cork’s staff members have been trained consistently in Landeen’s preferred service and chef style. For example, his restaurant has been serving the shrimp scampi the same way for 20 years so that guests can rely on continuity.
Keeping up with dietary trends
A contemporary restaurant has to adapt to new and increasingly intense American dietary restrictions to honor “the health and welfare of people,” he said.
He accommodates such restrictions by blending gluten-free soy sauce for their duck, baby back ribs, and sides of barbecue to eliminate any of his guests’ gluten intolerances.
Getting festive this coming season
“I’m still Christmas catering for various businesses,” he said. “I go in and I do that stuff, it’s no problem. I still like to cook, I just don’t want it to be the seven-days-a-week, 10-hour days it used to be.”
So long as Landeen stays at Jonathan’s Cork, his time-honored seasonal traditions will go on. He is currently getting ready to craft his customers’ beloved annual tradition of almond roca candy.
He made his first batch for the public when he was working at the Solarium (a now-famous California-style Tucson restaurant where Landeen worked as a chef for 10 years until it burned down in 1999) and owner Boll MacMorran (partner Frank Wood) put it on the menu. Landeen has kept making it ever since, but its timing depends on the temperature.
“If the weather stays really cold, it’ll be ready the weekend before Thanksgiving,” he said. If not, it will have to wait a bit. “Once we start production we try to keep it going through January.”
Looking to the future
Within a few years from now, Landeen said, Jonathan’s Cork might just be “Cork” again. And that would be alright with him. After more than 50 years of continuous operation — 25 of them under his reign — he says he’s certainly ready to sell the business if someone is ready to buy it.
At present, he said, “I’m just doing less time. I’m taking a month off in the spring and a month off in the fall.”
And after he eventually retires? “I certainly have a lot of interests. I don’t play golf, thank god. Some of the happiest days of my life, not playing golf.” He laughed.
In seriousness, though, Landeen said that if he sold the restaurant he would volunteer in his native Tucson community. He’d teach disadvantaged people to shop for food, then to cook it with whatever resources they have access to.
“For me, finding something to do — that’s not hard,” he said. “But the Cork is kind of an institution, and that’s what I rediscovered coming home from Italy.”
Jonathan’s Cork is located at 6320 E. Tanque Verde Rd. Operating hours are from 3 p.m. in the bar and 5 p.m. in the dining area until 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and 3 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
For more information, visit jonathanscork.com.