The chef still makes sure to pay homage to his Midwestern roots.
Growing up in the Midwest, a typical dinner for Ryan Ratino looked like sitting down at 5 p.m. sharp and chowing down on classic German and Polish staples, like pierogies and stuffed cabbage. Birthdays were spent at local hibachi restaurants or a Red Lobster. He describes the rural area of Ohio he grew up in as “not desolate, but definitely not bumpin', that’s for sure. My parents’ house is still surrounded by soybeans and corn.”
So how did Ratino break outside the corn fields of Ohio to become the youngest to ever receive two Michelin stars at his Washington, D.C. restaurant, JÔNT?
The journey began when he was a teenager. Ratino started cooking to help out and take some pressure off of his mother, who always rushed home from work to make dinner for him and his father. Ratino watched Emeril on the Food Network and began recreating the dishes he saw with ingredients his mother would buy. And when he graduated from high school with no clue what to do, his mother pushed him towards culinary school.
“I was the first person to leave home and go to university in my family,” Ratino says. After attending Orlando’s Le Cordon Bleu, he moved to New York City to sharpen his cooking skills at some of the country’s most lauded restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Caviar Russe as chef de cuisine under Christopher Agnew, who worked with famed chef Alain Ducasse for many years.
When Ratino moved to Washington, D.C., he “dug in” and spent time cooking at Wylie Dufresne’s landmark for modernist cooking WD-50, as well as Dovetail NYC, and minibar by José Andrés. Plus, he helmed the kitchen of the renowned D.C. hot spot Ripple. But eventually, he sought to open his own restaurant.
“The goal was to get out on our own and do something different,” he says. “Cook seriously with intention and lots of good technique and all those things, but without the pretense of a traditional French restaurant.”
Ratino opened Bresca six years ago in September 2017, which has a check average around $160 per person and was recognized with one Michelin star in the 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 Michelin guides. Though the menu continually changes and is “very globally influenced,” Ratino still serves some traditional French dishes like caviar, foie gras, and Duck a la Press—which makes use of all parts of the duck. “We’ve been serving that thing for years,” he says. “This is the one thing that’s never changed, because every time I eat it, I’m like ‘man, it’s so good.’ I don’t get bored of it.”
Ratino also pays homage to his Midwestern roots with some menu items. “We always have a pasta on the menu. We ate a lot of pasta growing up—we have stuffed pierogi on the menu sometimes here, which is a small nod towards my childhood, eating those for special occasions,” he notes. Ratino’s modern interpretations of pierogies include aged cheddar and black truffle, or broccoli and comte cheese with smoked onion. “They take so long to make, and my mother and grandma were the only ones willing to make it if it was important,” he adds.
In 2020, Ratino opened a 16-person tasting-menu-only restaurant upstairs in the same building as Bresca and called it JÔNT (guests go up the stairs and enter behind a bookcase). His goal was to focus on seafood and other ingredients mainly from Japan, cooked over a wood fire in an intimate environment.
“My idea was to source the best ingredients around the world, put it on a plate for 30 guests a night, five nights a week, split over two seatings,” he says. “We go all in and source our own caviar, pick out batches from farms, and work closely with different brokers in Japan. I go at least once a year, preferably twice, to pick fish, go to meat auctions.”
His attention to detail paid off; JÔNT earned two Michelin stars in the 2021 and 2022 guides.
“The JÔNT idea is we can go super deep into the food story and where it comes from, who produced it, how deep the fish came from, [like] 300 meters below sea level,” Ratino says. He even partners with the Ministry of Agriculture in Japan. “I think the embassy just came through as we started to import ingredients. They started to hear about what we were doing, and then we got two Michelin stars, and with so much Japanese agriculture on the menu that they took an interest
“They take us on trips over there to educate us on different regions and where different fish come from and produce comes from, and how we can support some of those regions with them exporting and us importing their goods and showcasing them on the menu. And then it becomes symbiotic,” he continues. Though Ratino considers his restaurants “small players,” he recognizes the trickle-down effect and the influence they can have on a wider tier of restaurants to use high-quality seafood imported from Japan.
With beverages included, a meal at JÔNT runs upwards of $600, which involves multiple rooms as part of the three-hour dining experience, like the savory room and pastry room.
“We have a lot of one-on-one interaction because it’s a counter; we’re not having to rush. At Bresca, something is on fire all the time. It’s go, go, go,” he says. “At JÔNT, all 16 guests are served at the same pace, so cooks can walk off the station and talk to guests, get to know people, and add way more hospitality touches to the experience.”
Ratino is also passionate about making his restaurants—and the industry in general—more sustainable. Within a year of launching Bresca, it became the first carbon-neutral restaurant in D.C. He teamed up with Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit dedicated to building a renewable food system rooted in healthy soil and regenerative farming. “We’re starting with the big picture, what we can get under control, and from there, we’re doing continuous research to this day on what can be done to help minimize the impact of restaurants,” he adds.