Jon Seymour’s mom didn’t let him into the kitchen much while she cooked when he was a kid, but now he’s had the last laugh. “My mom always cooked, but we weren’t allowed into the kitchen so it was kind of mysterious,” he laughs. Now a semi-finalist for the National James Beard Foundation Award for Best Midwest Chef, he’s considered one of the best chefs in the Omaha area as the Head Chef at V. Mertz.
Just to be nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award is a big deal. Chefs are nominated by other people working within the food industry. He’s joined in this honor with Clayton Chapman from the Grey Plume. “I worked with Clayton at V. Mertz when he was the Chef de Cuisine. I also worked with him at Spencer’s and I helped open the Plume in 2010,” says Jon. An incredible offer to intern at Noma in Copenhagen (considered one of the best restaurants in the world) ended his time at the Grey Plume. “It was unfortunate timing-wise,” says Jon. “It’s hard to leave a restaurant after spending the first hard month of opening. But Clayton and I still talk.”
Born and raised in Council Bluffs, he attended Metropolitan Community College and graduated in 2010. His first job was at V. Mertz where he worked his way up to Sous Chef. He’s then followed Chapman to Spencer’s and later worked at Jack Binion’s. He also worked at Metro as an instructor’s assistant.
His culinary talents became obvious after his parents divorced. “I was nine,” he says. “The divorce left me and my older brother and sister home alone a lot. My brother and sister were teenagers, so they went out, and I ended up learning to cook for myself.” It was around the end of high school that he decided to pursue a career as a chef. “I would geek out on Iron Chef. Friends would come over to my house and we’d go see what was in the fridge. I’d take pork and cook it in three or four ways to see what we liked.”
His ability to improvise and try new things has served him well as a chef. “V. Mertz is nice because we have a limited menu where we can combine stuff as we see fit. If we run out of something in the middle of a service, we’ve become accustomed to the wait staff changing the menu on the fly.”
“We’re heavily seasonally driven,” he says about V. Mertz. “One thing I hate is being stagnant; if the kitchen or wait staff is tired of it, we’re not going to sell it anymore. Being seasonally driven helps that because we only have a certain amount of time.” He utilizes local produce as much as possible and is also passionate about foraging, which is a concept he encountered while at Noma. “I started reading a lot of field guides to come up with plants that are native to Iowa and Nebraska. That’s something we started last spring. I’m excited to get that going again.”
Jon says there are a few common misconceptions about V. Mertz. “Everyone thinks it’s a very expensive French restaurant. We do have a professional wait staff and take the utmost care with the food we prepare, but by no means is it exclusively French and we aren’t trying to charge $100 per plate.” In a humble tone, he adds, “We try to get all the flavor and texture sensations into our dishes and I think we do a good job with that.”
He predicts that the James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist nominations for him and Chapman will be good overall for the Omaha food scene. “Last year we had two Beard nominations and this year we have two people up again, which is big. It’s cool to see local chefs get nominated and it would be cool if one of the two of us could become finalists this year. Becoming a finalist will focus attention on Omaha.”
Jon’s goal is not to earn recognition for what he does in the kitchen. “What I really want to do is make tasty food. I’ve had beautiful food without taste and had ugly food that tastes great. We’re trying to find the happy medium between making beautiful food and tasty food. If you’re not trying to make tasty food, I don’t understand why you’re in the industry.”