'Dorm chef' still cooking up culinary buzz
Jonah Reider became an object of media fascination when he opened a sophisticated supper club in his Columbia University dorm that briefly became one of New York City's most coveted reservations. Three years after graduation, the "dorm chef " is still cooking up culinary buzz. His club, Pith, has a new incarnation. After a short life in a Brooklyn townhouse, he's now cooking for small groups at his high-rise apartment near Wall Street. Reider flew overseas this spring to make a television pilot in Japan that features the lanky American presenting Japanese food traditions many younger people there have abandoned. And he's planning to open a grilled cheese sandwich shop in Tokyo. He's also launched a U.S. company called Alto that sells honey, olive oil and salt infused with CBD, the legal cannabis derivative, and THC in Oregon. That's not bad for a 25-year-old with no professional training as a chef — and lots of disdain for the "dorm chef" moniker that made him famous. "Tha
t's history; I've done so much more since then and I don't want to be identified that way," he said. Don't call him a chef either, he added with a grin. "I think of myself as a good home cook. The food is upscale, but very simple," he said, explaining that he's trying to inspire people to host friends and family at home rather than overspending at fancy restaurants. "I think the best meals are happening in people's homes," he said on a recent morning as he surveyed Manhattan's Union Square greenmarket for a Pith dinner the next night. "I want to show people how joyful cooking can be." Reider's informal kitchen training started during childhood in Newton, Massachusetts, in a family that loved to cook. He landed on New York's foodie scene as a Columbia University senior in 2015, when a review of his dorm meals in the campus newspaper led to wider media coverage and a 4,000-person waiting list. The icing on the cake came when Reider appeared on Stephen Colbert's "Late Show," s
erving the TV host a phyllo dough dessert filled with black truffle-infused honey and a side of pear nectar sorbet. The university was not thrilled with the young entrepreneur's venture — costing each guest about $15 for groceries — and booted the economics major from the dorm, but not before Reider won kudos from renowned culinary expert Ruth Reichl, who said his food was "impossible to stop eating." Since graduation, he's managed to earn a living as an innovative cook, hired by corporations and individuals to take his unique pop-up creations around the world, from Italy and Japan to Australia and New Zealand. He's prepared food linked to events sponsored by the likes of Google, Penguin Random House, KitchenAid, Jaguar Land Rover and even the government of Malaysia. After Columbia, the graduate rented a room in a Brooklyn hedge fund manager's townhouse where he staged a series of Pith dinners, with tickets going for $95 plus a $45 wine pairing. He says he wanted to prove he was capable of p
roducing high-end professional meals. He also gave free cooking lessons to public schoolkids. At that table last year, he met "the love of my life" — a Belgian-born college student whose brother gave her the dinner as a birthday gift. Romance blossomed and the pair now split the rent for a tiny Manhattan apartment they have stylishly redecorated in the Art Deco high-rise with a spectacular New York Harbor view. The Pith table seats a half dozen guests about two evenings a week. Tickets go for $40. "Crispy salmon with nice flaky salt" and "little potatoes roasted with herbs from my bedroom window sill" are Reider's descriptions of some of the nine dishes at a recent Pith evening, plus appetizers. In addition, the dinner featured chilled cucumber soup with sheep's yogurt; beef tartare toast; a salad of baby lettuces and radishes; morels and wild spring onions crisped in miso butter; farro cooked in morel broth with spring peas — all topped by a rhubarb tart with toasted almond gela
to. He posted invitations on Instagram just two hours before the 7 p.m. feast — up for grabs to anyone who was interested, first come, first served. The meal sold out in 10 seconds to strangers who arrived at the door and quickly settled into lively conversations around the candlelit table as the sun set over the Statue of Liberty. Dinners also are announced on the Pith website. Reider's entrepreneurship was the subject of a TEDx talk he gave at Georgetown University in Washington, titled "Economic and Creative Enfranchisement Through Food." At Stanford University, he's spoken about "Values and Aesthetics in Home Cooking." His endeavors in Japan began when he got attention for a Pith pop-up in that country. Later, an executive from a Japanese video production company was in New York and contacted Reider. "I've always wanted to make a TV show celebrating home cooking and the joy of do-it-yourself hospitality, so I had him come over and made him a few scallops," Reider said.
The executive invited him to film the pilot for a Japanese show focusing not on top restaurants in big cities, but "the culinary traditions of farmers, brewers, grandmas etc. all around less traveled areas," Reider said. "My goal anywhere I go is to highlight home hospitality and culinary traditions," he said. "I want to show how home cooking connects all of us around the globe. It's a travel and culture show, happening in homes everywhere." The cheese sandwich shop also is being financed by private investors, who with Reider are looking to lease a Tokyo location this summer. Meanwhile, he's taking Japanese lessons.