If chef Jonathan Krell’s story only contained two nuggets – he trained with Masaharu Morimoto, and he once worked as a sound engineer on Ozzfest – he’d still be one of the most interesting people in Oklahoma City. As it is, he is easily one of the best, most versatile chefs, too, and he runs the kitchen at Patrono, one of the city’s most popular restaurants.
“We know we’re not for everyone,” says Krell as we taste through items on the new fall menu. “And we’re okay with that. Once a year, we do a dinner that features Italian-American staples out of respect for our guests who love that version of Italian food. The rest of the time, we’re more interested in surprising and educating them on the diversity of Italian cuisine.”
Smoked duck breast with a roasted parsnip raviolo and squash broth (in the new fall line-up) won’t be on the menu at chain Italian restaurants, but taste it, and you may lose the urge for all-you-can-eat breadsticks. Krell brings both flavor and aesthetic mastery to his food, and he adds a huge dose of sheer likeability, helped along by the fact that he loves people – really loves them.
Patrono only has 15 tables and 11 barstools, and the smaller, intimate space suits Krell, who likes to have time to move around the dining room and talk to guests, regulars and newcomers. He was in a band in high school, and that’s what got him into sound engineering. He found, however, that he only loved the live performance aspect.
“I looked forward to the constant curveballs, tweaking things on the fly, and the adrenaline and energy of a live performance,” he says. “The two gigs – sound and chef – are very similar in that respect.”
Krell and his older brother cooked for themselves regularly when they were children. Their mother was working her way through college, so the boys learned early to cook, beginning with breakfast. But their culinary education was eclectic.
“We ran the gamut of my mom emulating Martha Stewart to my Marine captain grandfather insisting anything hot and brown is good enough to eat,” says Krell.
The love of Asian food persisted, though, and it was dumplings and sushi that got him into the professional side of food. He delivered dumplings for a Chinese restaurant before he had formal training, so he taught himself how to make them. Time in the kitchen in Philadelphia (he’s a native) with Morimoto taught him to respect ingredients and make beautiful sushi.
“I still love anything Asian,” he says. “I remember going to Sheesh Mahal the first time, and then going home and posting to social media: ‘Please do not let this place fail!’ I love everything they do. I get two regular dishes, and then tell him to surprise me with a third.”
At home, he cooks comfort food, which for him, means anything from bulgogi to coq au vin.
“Everyone’s definition of comfort food is different, and a lot of it is cultural,” he says. “I love breakfast for supper. It’s why we’re offering a Sunday p.m. brunch at Patrono right now. My grandfather taught me that if you’re short on something, ‘Gravy it up!’ However, there is not enough butter in the world to make me like Lima beans. I’ve tried.”