A Southern Chef in Saugerties
Jonathan Botta is a good Southern boy. Corn is his favorite vegetable and cooking over fire is his second language, one that speaks to him through crackles of charcoal and whispers of flames. When he talks about recent foraging trips or homemade sausage, his natural twang helps tell the story, adding a depth of earnestness and ease to his words.
The only thing is, he’s not in the South; he’s in Saugerties.
As a child growing up in North Carolina, Botta spent his earliest days tottering around the kitchen of his father’s restaurants, absorbing flavors of the region along the way. When the time came for him to cut his teeth in the industry, however, he broke off from his family and ventured into Raleigh, where he stayed for 11 years to master both Southern cuisine with French techniques and traditional North Carloina whole-hog barbecue under top-tier chefs like James Beard-winner Ashley Christensen and barbecue great Ed Mitchell. Yet even then, he knew his time below the Mason-Dixon line was only temporary.
In 2012, he journeyed north to New York City to see if he could hold his own against Gotham’s finest. He started at Colicchio & Sons, then hopped to the East Village to help his friend Will Horowitz open the barbecue-centric Ducks Eatery and, later, Harry & Ida’s Meat Supply Co. Botta fell into a groove as chef de cuisine, a position he held for nearly four years.
And then his world changed forever.
“A friend of mine — my best friend — got in a motorcycle accident and broke his neck,” Botta says. “He was about to open a restaurant in Raleigh.” To save the day, Botta put in his notice at Ducks and returned to North Carolina for a year to help open Whiskey Kitchen.
“It’s doing really well,” he enthuses. Once he knew the restaurant could run without him, he moved back to New York. It was right after he returned that family friends Dallas and Ted Gilpin asked him to step into the kitchen at The Dutch Ale House. The Gilpins were ready to purchase the Saugerties eatery from its former owners and wanted a chef who could create a culinary program to honor and elevate the restaurant’s history.
“I did not plan on being there for more than six months,” Botta reveals. Yet since the Dutch opened in mid-2018, he’s been the one at the helm, whipping up mouth-watering plates that walk the line between bar food and fine dining, between French technique and down-home cooking. There’s also the fact that almost everything, from the pickled vegetables to the IPA mustard, is homemade. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Dutch’s sausage program. Botta has a sixth sense for the artform and knows exactly how long to smoke kielbasa (four hours, after it’s had a chance to develop its flavors in the cooler for 24 hours) and what to use to poach bratwurst (beer — it is an ale house, after all).
“There’s so many things you can do in one small bite,” he says.
Alongside his homemade sausage, Botta tempts diners with dishes that radiate seasonality and pack more flavor than seems possible for one plate. His pastrami rib, for instance, falls apart upon impact, its coriander crust tenderly cascading down upon roasted potatoes and fennel. On his Italian sausage roll, spicy meat and broccoli rabe rest on a smear of smoked tomato jam, which he makes from salvaged tomato scraps and cooks in one of the restaurant’s two smokers. His baby is the old-school hog cooker, a 250-gallon oil propane barrel that brings him back to his days in North Carolina. As a backup, he also uses an indoor, wood-fed smoker on days when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Botta’s attention to detail is evident on every line of the Dutch’s menu. Yet it’s also present behind the scenes, in his extra-credit attempts to root the restaurant as a 100-percent unique operation in the Hudson Valley. During any given week, he could be foraging for knotweed, an invasive local weed that is “super delicious.” He could be chatting with local brewers to brainstorm pairings for the restaurant’s next beer dinner, spending days writing the menu and collecting ingredients. He could be sourcing rabbits from a local farm or working with Hudson Valley Harvest to secure the freshest produce. He could be doing all these things — and he is.
“It’s fun for me to take my time and do the stuff that I really enjoy doing,” he says, adding that his passion for Hudson Valley ingredients differentiates him from the typical Southern chef. “I don’t want to be limited. I want to keep learning and progressing my cuisine.” ϖ