Jon Bonnell knows great cuisine when he sees it.
Since graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in 1997, the renowned chef, restaurant owner and Fort Worth native has been a mainstay in the food industry for more than two decades.
Bonnell opened his first establishment, Bonnell’s Restaurant, in 2001. He’s also published two cookbooks and has appeared as a special guest on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and Food Network’s “BBQ with Bobby Flay,” according to the restaurant’s website.
Changing culinary scene on the horizon
Bonnell said he has seen a series of changes in the Fort Worth culinary scene that are pulling the city away from its casual dining roots and bringing it toward a more contemporary image.
“Back in the 1980’s, the Fort Worth food scene — when you talk about fine dining — was either something at the country clubs or European restaurants,” Bonnell said. “Over time, Fort Worth [has] really started to develop its own cuisine, by elevating southwestern cuisine to the fine dining level.”
Bonnell said he’s also seen restaurants in the city embrace more cultural and stylistic cuisines.
“It’s pretty neat to see how the food scene in this city has really developed over the years,” he said. “Now we have every cuisine imaginable here in our own city.”
City event uniting area chefs
The changes Bonnell has seen will become more vivid later this month when hundreds of chefs, restaurants, breweries, wineries and dessert shops participate in the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival. The event spans from March 31 to April 3.
The event is designed to showcase the variety of cuisines the city has to offer.
The festival began two years ago and has continued to draw the city’s best culinary experts, and other talents around Dallas-Fort Worth. Chef’s prepare dishes that preserve the city’s traditional brand of comfort food and southwestern cuisine. They also introduce new cuisines that enable both chefs and visitors to expand their culinary horizons.
“I think people will be impressed with how much diversity and elevation of the cuisine the city has reached,” Bonnell said.
What to expect
The festival begins on Thursday, March 31 with a Barbecue Showdown at W.R. Watt Arena in Fort Worth’s Cultural District. Chef Committee Chair Sarah Hooton said approximately 15 pitmasters from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and beyond, will fire up their grills and prepare their specialty dishes for a panel of celebrity judges.
More events include the higher-end Main Event located at Pier 1 Imports, “#latenight Desserts After Dark,” “Rise + Dine: A Brunch Inspired Tasting,” “Burgers, Brews & Blues” and the “Family Sunday Funday” picnic, the festival’s final event held on Monday, April 3 at Panther Island.
Hooten said the Burgers, Brews & Blues event is the festival’s most popular event. She said she believes the event is so popular because of its laid-back format and style of cooking.
“People in Fort Worth like their casual cuisine,” Hooten said. “They like their burgers and beer.”
Hooton said the types of ingredients the competing chefs use to prepare their dishes are always changing. She said each of the events brings something unique to the table.
“The chefs tend to change what they do almost every year [based on] of whatever they’re into that year,” she said. “Last year, pork belly was a very popular ingredient. This year, vegetables actually might be more of a popular ingredient. You can tell [the chefs] are focusing a lot more on putting vegetables and different flavors with their [dishes].”
Hooton has worked with the festival since its inception in 2014. She’s also been working professionally in the culinary industry for more than six years at Fort Worth’s Central Market.
Like Bonnell, she’s also taken heed of the city’s evolving food and drink scene.
“There’s more awareness given to the chef in particular and their creative styles,” Hooten said. “People are more willing to try food based on a chef’s reputation. They’re excited to try some of these new restaurants because they know the chef. There’s just more room for them to be a little bit more creative here.”
This creativity, Hooton said, is beneficial not only to the chefs of Fort Worth but to their customers as well.
“Fewer chain places, more chef-driven, more fresh ingredients,” she said. “They’re more willing to try things like that. I think they’re opening up their palettes a little bit and they’re not so afraid to go try it.”
While the events help stir the pot with fresh concepts and ingredients, they also maintain a sense of Fort Worth’s traditional culinary identity, which Bonnell believes is important for chefs to remember as they experiment with new ingredients and cuisines.
“This is still Cowtown,” he said. “Everybody still loves our Tex-Mex, our barbecue and chicken fried steak, but it’s nice that our culinary scene now has so much diversity from top to bottom. The customers are so much more educated than they used to be. Everybody considers themselves a ‘foodie’ these days.”
Russell Kirkpatrick is the co-founder of the festival and the general manager of Fort Worth’s Reata Restaurant. He’s been working professionally in the culinary industry for nearly 20 years, and since he and his wife moved to Fort Worth in 2004, he said he’s seen the tremendous change in the city’s cuisine.
“Years ago, Fort Worth was really thought of as a meat and potatoes kind of town,” he said. “Over the last 3-5 years, we’ve seen so much more cuisines blossom. It’s been really cool to see the evolution of our city’s palette.”
When asked specifically about the city’s rising fine dining scene, Kirkpatrick said a big reason for its increasing popularity is something it has lacked for several years.
“I think that restaurateurs are figuring out that you have to interject a little bit of personality with your professionalism and your service standards,” he said. “Ten to fifteen years ago, if you walked into a white tablecloth restaurant, you might not get too much personality… Now, especially in Fort Worth, you’re seeing that diners enjoy having a little conversation here and there with their meal, and they don’t want it to feel as robotic as a stuffy restaurant might have felt years ago.”
This personality and excitement Kirkpatrick alludes to is one of the reasons he and co-founder Mike Micallef created the festival two years ago. It’s also why he said about 5,000 people are attending the festival each year since its inception.
“I think [the festival] creates a lot of opportunities for a small restaurant to get out there in front of a large audience and really showcase what they do,” Kirkpatrick said. “Obviously, we have enough talented individuals here in town that we should be not only showcasing the chefs here in town, but also showcasing Fort Worth.”