Comeback Kid: Chef Jonathan Martinez invites you to eat what you crave
Jonathan Martinez was all smiles when I arrived at Last Licks in Liberty, NY. The space is open, bright, with a warm, sharp color scheme of red, white and black. He’s describing all the recent renovations and upgrades—pausing often to greet customers like old friends—that brought the restaurant’s vibe closer to his vision.
About a year and a half ago, Martinez stepped up from sous-status and took over the popular Liberty eatery I was about to dine at for the first time. The restaurant had been open for 17 years before Martinez took over. With a trail of awards marking his career path through a full course of restaurants, the Monticello-native was well prepped for the job. His customers seem to agree, voting Martinez Best Chef in TRR’s Best of 2018 Reader’s Choice Awards.
After spending six years in the army infantry, three of those in Iraq, Martinez moved to Brooklyn for a year. Returning home to be with family led him through a resume of restaurants, and he soon found that the culinary world clicked with him as a passion instead of simply a means for a paycheck.
I sat down with Martinez to pick his brain about his process and how he landed at Last Licks.
TRR: So, let’s start with the basics. Did you always want to be a chef?
"Something clicked, and I wasn’t just settling for a paycheck; I wanted to be really good at it."
Martinez: No, I kind of fell into it… I’m a first-generation immigrant, so the hotel business and working in the kitchen has always kind of been part of my family. Even when my mom worked in hotels as a waitress, I was the rugrat in the kitchen. So it’s not something I truly wanted to do, but it was always something that was there. It was something that came naturally.
I’ve been cooking for myself from a very, very young age, then I did the military for a long time. And not until after the military is when I really started taking it more seriously. After my experience, I went into the kitchen—I felt that was my zone. I found my zen in the kitchen.
TRR: Do recall any specific childhood memories spent in the kitchen?
Martinez: Definitely, plenty. I was an only child, so being that my parents worked all the time, I had to fend for myself. I always played around with ingredients… I just like to eat the stuff that I like. Messing around with flavors at a young age, that was something I always did. Even in the military, I got chances to cook and grill.
TRR: Have you received any advice that proved to be invaluable as you progressed with your career?
Martinez: “Never lower your standards.” A lot of people in this industry… can get complacent. Letting things become mundane, repetitive… It gets to the point where it gets real hard—with the repetitiveness, you can start slacking off. What helped me be where I’m at now [is that] even [on] those slower days, you still do your best. You’re only as good as your very last dish. So I’ll always keep that up, I never lower my standards. The same dish over and over and over again, that can get boring, but I don’t drop it. It’s still going to be the best version of it.
TRR: Was there a turning point in your life or career that changed how you work?
Martinez: It helped out a lot that I have leadership experience with the military, bringing that into the kitchen and being able to delegate and accomplish the tasks that need to get done.
[Within] the last 10 years or so, I started messing around with more ingredients and the culinary [arts]. I don’t know, something clicked, and I wasn’t just settling for a paycheck; I wanted to be really good at it. So with every kitchen I [worked in], I always did what [the head chef] wanted me to do, but I always kept myself in the back a little bit—I didn’t want to put everything forward, you know what I mean? I wanted to see how they did things, take things from them and [understand] what I didn’t want to take from them. I was pretty much doing homework for myself, because I didn’t have the time for and couldn’t afford college at the time. So, I made it a point to study myself, to study everything that I’ve seen, everything I do… to be as good as I could possibly get without being classically trained.
TRR: How did it feel to take over an established and beloved restaurant near your hometown?
Martinez: I grew up around here, I’m from Monticello. A lot of people think I came from the city, and it’s funny because I’m not. “Oh who’s this guy coming in and changing the place?” I just started talking to them, being a veteran also—people started to talk to me, started to like who I was, and [saw that] I’m not coming in to [make] changes. The first year, I didn’t change anything, I just added stuff. The menu and everything was the same. I made sure [of] the little details that somebody with no culinary background would overlook.
TRR: The last few restaurants you worked for won best chef, and now you’ve won it. How do you think you shaped those restaurants and how did they prepare you for Last Licks?
Martinez: The last couple restaurants in my last several years, we’ve been hitting awards in TRR. We’ve had best new restaurant, best new menu, this and that. I think what helped me the most is that I was lucky to be with
people who had a good vibe and cared as much as I cared, so it made it easy to care about the dish, because then we just did work. We did what we wanted to do and the outcome showed that for itself.
I’ve been in a lot of kitchens, but the longest one, I was a sous chef at the Heron [in Narrowsburg] for about seven years. Before that, I helped my buddies at Benji and Jakes, the Front Porch, Gerard’s River Grill… Working as a sous chef, you create dishes and stuff like that, [but] they’re truly not your dishes. Even though the other chefs and cooks know, they’re the restaurant’s dishes. So now it’s getting out of the shadow, standing on my own two feet and being recognized for it.
TRR: What made you take over Last Licks?
Martinez: The last two or three years, I got to the point where I was like, all right… I gotta’ push myself and take a risk. So I did my homework, and we were looking to maybe do a food truck. People think this is a glamorous business, but it’s not. To get a liquor license, that’s tough, that’s expensive, and there’s a lot of risks in it—so it’s like, ok, am I gonna’ go all in, high risk and scared to fail and then in be debt? So I wanted to do baby steps.
[It wasn’t] until my brother-in-law came and said, “Hey, I’ll do this with you,” [that] we kind of got an “in” into what was going on with Last Licks. We did our homework, said yeah this is a nice sandwich shop, this could work. Soups and sandwiches—fresh; they’re doing a good job, they’ve been here for 17 years. We did a lot of homework so we were like all right, yeah, let’s start there. It’s low, low risk, there’s no alcohol involved, insurance is there, I don’t need wait staff because it’s a fast, casual business. It’s almost like a food truck with no wheels. So we jumped on board and got it done.
TRR: What do people enjoy about eating here?
Martinez: I think they love the freshness of the sandwiches, the cold cuts... they like a big sandwich, and they like the soups. Even in the summer time, people enjoy soups. I make different soups every day. Last year I made over 360 soups, so I have a lot of soup recipes.
There’s a little more culinary discipline behind the fast-casual [style of Last Licks]. Coming from a farm-to-table restaurant, it was just natural to be like, hey, I see all these ingredients and I can make something out of it. And then I pumped it out. Sure enough, a lot of people liked what I was doing, and I got voted best chef. I was expecting best soup, not best chef, but that’s exciting.
TRR: What’s to come for you and the restaurant?
Martinez: Coming into our second summer, we’re going into it with a new look. Now that we have a full kitchen, we can play some games. We have added a bunch of new stuff—we do breakfast now. We do offer some new sandwiches and… some more homemade stuff. The portobello is marinated in my own style, in house. I came up with the recipe [and] do my own Cuban... with my own traditional mojo, [just] tweaked it a little bit. I want to do more fun things like that, obviously the challenge is, we need more help, and we need the right help. Because until the help actually knows what we’ve done and how to keep it like that, it’s hard to transition and to add a lot of new stuff. If it doesn’t come out right, you did all that work for nothing.
It took me time to take this risk, so it’ll take me time to actually go crazy and have some more fun.