No city does the holidays quite like Fort Worth. And no local chef epitomizes the taste of the city during the season quite like Jon Bonnell.
One of the foremost experts on wild game and Texas flavors, this bestselling cookbook author and TV star has turned his Zagat-rated Bonnell’s Fine Cuisine into a must-dine destination for anyone passing through town. A consistent winner of the Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” since 2004, its menu is uniquely Texan, offering wild game and produce sourced all across the state seasoned with spices that blend the best of Creole, Mexican and Southwestern influences.
A fourth generation Cowtowner, Bonnell is in the process of relocating his successful WATERS, Bonnell’s Coastal Cuisine, to its new location in Sundance Square. The chef took time out from his busy schedule to share a recipe that epitomizes the flavors and festivities of this most celebratory of seasons.
Walsh: “What do the holidays in Fort Worth bring to mind and how does the city do this season differently than any other destination?”
Jon Bonnell: “Fort Worth is just a laid back town, so it’s all about time around the fire. You don’t get too formal here for Christmas—people look you right in the eye, eye to eye, and say ‘Merry Christmas.’
“It’s a lot of boots, jeans and down jackets… pretty casual. Fort Worth is also big on entertaining. Everybody I know throws a Christmas party. It’s a great festive atmosphere.”
Walsh: “Tell us a little bit about what makes the city an exceptional place?”
JB: “There are 900 thousand people here but it still has a small town feel. Everyone knows everyone, it’s very personable. The town has so much heritage and connection to our roots. It’s a cattle town, a Western town. It’s where the West began.”
Walsh: “How about for you, how does your work personify Texas exceptionalism?”
JB: “When I went to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, I already had a vision for what I wanted my restaurant to be, and for me it all started with ingredients. The Fort Worth palate is a mix of Tex Mex, Southwestern and Louisiana flavors. We’re known for being one of the best venison producers in the world. When I started to make relationships with the (local) tomato guy, herb guy and cheesemaker, that’s where I found inspiration for new dishes. It’s all about exceptional ingredients and local stuff—everything is made from scratch, from salsas to sausage. We’ve been open for 15 years and we’re still looking for new sources all the time.”
Walsh: “Tell us about your signature holiday dish. I know it originally came from your grandmother.”
JB: “Buttermilk biscuits and chili, that’s as Texas as it gets. Growing up, my grandmother loved to entertain. She threw a party for her friends once a month; it might be 30 or 40 people celebrating whoever had a birthday that month. There’d always be appetizers on a tray and the chili biscuits are something I’d remember so well.
“When I was writing my second cookbook (Jon Bonnell’s Texas Favorites), I had childhood recipes in there, but those little chili biscuits she used to make didn’t go into a lot of detail. I thought, ‘It’s as simple as making biscuits, putting your thumb in the middle and making chili.’ For me, it’s (the taste of) winter, a good spot of chili on a cold day.”
W: “What do you think makes Fort Worth such an enduring culinary destination?”
JB: “When I was growing up in Fort Worth in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s all the nice restaurants were French or Italian, they all had a Euro flair to them. Somewhere along the way guys like (Southwestern cuisine pioneer) Dean Fearing paved the way for an entire genre of cooking. As I started coming up through the ranks, Fort Worth started developing its own cuisine. I love that it has its own feel. With places like Clay Pigeon and Ellerbee (Fine Foods), it’s really a fine dining destination with its own feel. It took 10 years for it to happen, but I love where the scene is now.
“There’s a camaraderie among chefs, everyone knows and likes each other. There’s a culture and heritage, if you come back 10 years from now and these restaurants are still going, they’ll still have the flavors. It reminds me of New Orleans—they keep that consistency and wonderful flavors, even though they’re doing inventive stuff every day.”
W: “What are you looking forward to in 2017?”
JB: “We’re reopening our seafood restaurant in Sundance Square in a couple of months. It’s the best spot in town, there’s so much foot traffic and history. I’m also the (celebrity) chef for all the Texas Christian University games at Amon G. Carter Stadium!”
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 pinch kosher salt
10 ounces salted butter, cold, cut into cubes
9 ounces buttermilk
½ cup venison chili or true Texas chili (see recipe)
½ cup grated cheddar cheese
In a large mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and whisk until mixed thoroughly. Cut in the cubes of butter by hand (or with a dough cutter) until the texture of wet sand is achieved. Pour in the buttermilk and mix by hand until the dough just barely comes together. Do not overmix or knead the dough or the biscuits will become chewy and tough.
Turn the dough out onto a board or countertop dusted with flour (to prevent it from sticking). Roll the dough out to approximately 1½ inches thick. Cut the dough with a small circular ring and place on a greased baking sheet. Place a deep dimple in the center of each biscuit with your finger, then fill each with a spoonful of chili and top with cheddar cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes, or until the biscuits are browned and lightly bubbling.
This recipe can make any size biscuits, from full portion to bite sized versions simply by cutting the dough into different sized circles and varying the amount of chili spooned into the middle. To keep the dough from sticking to your circle cutters, keep dipping it in flour between each cut.
True Texas Chili
4 pounds beef chuck
2 tablespoons Texas Red Dirt Rub, Southwestern Blend
3½ tablespoons chili powder (I prefer Pendery’s Brand, Bull Canyon or Tres Ochos)
1 tablespoon smoked hot paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 pinch ground clove
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 large sweet onions (I prefer the Texas 1015), medium dice
7 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapenos, seeded and diced
4 bottles Shiner Bock Beer (one is for the cook, three for the chili)
6 ounces tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
5 to 6 dashes hot sauce (I prefer Crystal Brand)
3 tablespoons crushed tortilla chips (a rolling pin works well for crushing them)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
In Texas, chuck can often be purchased in the form of “chili grind.” If not available, buy whole chuck pieces and grind it using the largest plate that your grinder comes with. The grinder attachment for a Kitchen Aide-type of mixer runs about $30, and is well worth the investment. Once the meat is ground, add all dry ingredients to the meat and mix well. In a large pot, sear the seasoned meat in canola oil until well browned on all sides. Add in the onions, jalapenos and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring often. Add in the 3 bottles of Shiner Bock and all remaining ingredients and bring to a light simmer. Cover tightly and simmer on low for 2½ hours, then check for consistency. Once the chili has become thick and hearty, it’s ready. If it’s too watery and thin, continue to simmer without the lid until it reduces to a thick consistency.
In Texas, chili does not have beans. That’s not to say that you can’t put beans in your chili if you like them, it’s just not how real Texas chili is made. Our chili is chili con carne, made with meat, lots of it. The quality of chili is always in direct relation to the quality of the beef you start with and the types of chili powders that you use. My favorite source for the best chili powder is Pendery’s. They sell online or in person and have more varieties of chili powder than anyone is likely to ever use. Not all chili powders are the same, so be careful what you buy. Anything labeled just chili powder is likely made from whatever pepper happened to be the cheapest on the market on a given day.