Article by Yana Samberg
Photography by Fitz
Lead photo of Chef Jon Scheidt in the Streats kitchen
Jon Scheidt’s girlfriend once asked him what type of food he cooked. He didn’t have a ready answer for her. Scheidt, sous chef at Streats in Norfolk and winner of the 2017 Young Guns competition, likes the freedom of cooking what he wants. Some chef’s menus change with the season. Scheidt’s menus change with his mood.
“If I cook Italian, I want to cook the best Italian I can. If I want to cook French, I want to cook the best French I can,” said the 31-year-old, while standing at the stove, stripping chalky green kale off its stalks. Streats patrons may be treated to Dan Dan noodles one night, and corn chowder or ceviche the next.
As the cliché goes, not all who wander are lost. Diners who follow Scheidt on his gastronomic explorations are rewarded with food that is at once recognizable, authentic and fun to eat. Scheidt’s imagination is as likely to produce a slow roasted bone marrow—rich, warm, and fatty; or a fried green tomato and pimento cheese topped burger. High-end or low-end, Scheidt pays attention to melding flavors and to make sure everything, including presentation, serves the end result…turning out food people want to come back for again and again. It’s an objective that sounds basic and obvious, but just because you can dice vegetables doesn’t mean you can make mirepoix.
“It’s all about how you use the fundamental skills to take food to a level beyond,” Streats’ Executive Chef, James McGuffey said of Scheidt’s cooking.
Mirepoix is what Scheidt is making the first time we meet in the Streats kitchen. It’s late afternoon; that magic time before dinner when all is quiet and Scheidt has the place to himself. Scheidt is alone in the kitchen prepping a rosemary scented chicken soup. A comedy broadcast is streaming in the background and the sound of canned laughter mixes with the sizzle of onions, carrots, celery, and oil cooking down in a stockpot on the stove. Scheidt moves casually about. This is his favorite time of the day, when he can take it easy before the restaurant comes to life. Making soup relaxes him. The rosemary chicken soup is a new recipe Scheidt is messing around with.
“Eh, it’s still coming along,” he says, peering over the top of the steaming stockpot.
“Jon has a lot of creativity. He’s very passionate about food,” McGuffey said. “I love his inventiveness.”
Girlfriend Kristy Barnes, who has worked as a bartender and waitress, describes Scheidt’s food as “thoughtful, ingenious, beautiful, flavorful, and from the heart.”
Scheidt usually gets an idea about the nature of a dish and what ingredients he wants to use. His menus are produce driven rather than protein driven. He likes to use what is fresh and in season, and works out the details through several test runs. Sometimes he will allow his co-workers or his girlfriend to taste a dish he’s created first before tasting the dish himself to get their feedback. Scheidt says it keeps him from getting too married to an idea and allows incorporation of inputs without ego. He also sweats other elements, including how a dish “falls” during presentation. He will test plate a dish to make sure it can survive a trip from kitchen to table without losing form or appeal. He wants to evoke the essence of an ingredient organically, without torturing food into something it isn’t meant to be.
This same methodical and thoughtful approach led to his plate which won top honors at Young Guns earlier this summer. Four chefs were given five must-use ingredients: pork, watermelon, peanuts, corn and green tomatoes. A panel of industry judges reviewed each submission and there was a People’s Choice category as well.
Scheidt said as soon as he heard the ingredient list, he knew what he wanted to make. His succotash with grilled pork, ground peanuts, watermelon and a balsamic glaze won the judges’ praise.
“His dish was the most cohesive. It definitely hit all the different components [and they] just flowed,” recalled Al DeVane, owner of Carolina Son BBQ and one of the judges. Another judge, Judy Cowling, of The Virginian Pilot, described Scheidt’s dish as “beautifully plated” in her write-up of the event.
During the competition Scheidt said he just focused on getting the dish out. He didn’t try to schmooze the judges or make small talk with diners. Originally he wanted to make a watermelon infused cream sauce for the dish, but knew he wouldn’t have enough time to get the consistency and flavor he wanted.
“I was sure Michelle was going to win,” he said. That would be Michelle Smith of Stockpot in Virginia Beach, who won the People’s Choice vote at Young Guns. When he was declared the winner, he was shocked.
However, it seems the only one surprised by Scheidt’s success seems to be Scheidt.
Scheidt arrived in Hampton Roads three years ago from his hometown of Baltimore. He came to work with friend and Army buddy, Luke Brigham. Brigham, along with partner Rina Estero, own and run Nouvelle, where Scheidt was the sous chef and first started making his bones as a burgeoning bright spot in the Hampton Roads cooking talent pool. By his own account, Scheidt was looking to break out a bit more and felt somewhat confined by the French fusion cuisine at Nouvelle. Streats, open late till 2 a.m., was a favorite hangout and he was no stranger to McGuffey or owner Neil Boden. So when a position opened up, Scheidt seemed like a natural fit.
And while Scheidt may still not know all the local channels on television, one senses he has found a much sought after camaraderie in Hampton Roads. Scheidt says what he enjoys most about the local dining scene is the lack of cookie-cutter restaurants and the rise of privately owned, chef driven eateries that celebrate local ingredients and pushing boundaries. He is especially appreciative of developing relationships with other chefs to trade ideas, talk shop and get feedback on evolving recipes, something he lacked in Baltimore.
“Norfolk is like the Austin of the East Coast,” he said.
Those who work with him speak not only of Scheidt’s creative capabilities but his blue-collar work ethic as well, learned by manning punishing shifts in Army dining facilities (or DFACs as they are known) while stationed in Korea and Texas. Dressed in a black t-shirt, baggy houndstooth chef pants and an ever present Baltimore Ravens ball cap, Scheidt’s languid pace and lack of pretense contradict his focus and drive. Both of which have earned him respect not only with customers, but with other chefs as well.
“Jon is my favorite chef in Norfolk to drink with. He has a way about him that makes it easy to talk shop without it being tiresome,” said Josh Gregory, executive chef at Supper Southern Morsels and Public House. “His blue-collar persona belies him on the plate. His food is focused and flavor centric, which is a weird thing to say about a chef…but I feel like we see a lot of food these days that feels like the flavor is an afterthought. He’s humble, passionate and just an all around good guy in an industry often devoid of such characteristics.”
Streats is located at 915 West 21st St, Ste A in Norfolk’s Ghent
For more on Scheidt and Streats, visit: streatsnorfolk.com