Top Chefs: Jennifer Horvath of Toast

Hopping off the production line without missing a beat, Jennifer Horvath seems as comfortable in the kitchen as she does at a cozy, candlelit corner table at Toast. Ambitious as all hell — a sous chef at the beloved Greenhouse Tavern by 23 and head chef at this new Gordon Square destination by 25 — you would never suspect her path almost led elsewhere. In a way, it still does.

She and husband Joe, who shares the head chef title at Toast, were on the fast track to buying their own farm when they heard of proprietor Jill Davis' search for staff to open the restaurant.

"We met with a chicken farmer about buying land right before we went to meet Jill and I told Joe, 'No way, we're not doing this,'" says Jennifer. "Then she explained the concept, walked us around and showed us the lot where we could have our hoop house. As soon as we got in the car I said, 'When are we starting?'"

Growing up in Geauga County surrounded by farmland, Jennifer's youthful cooking obsession was fueled by small-town living. She and her father would compete with each other by preparing the same dish all week until it was just right. It was the birth of her appreciation of rustic French cuisine, which she admires for "the beauty behind taking the time to get to know an ingredient, finding its best use, and treating the ingredient with respect."

After graduating from high school and spending a few months in culinary school, Jennifer found herself in Atlanta, Ga., with family to save up money to continue her education. Her eventual homecoming became her greatest influence yet, a return to her roots in farming guided by her work at Greenhouse Tavern. It's come to fruition in Toast's nearby kitchen garden, with 16 beds of vegetation, hoop house and chicken coop.

"Moving back, I was inspired to work with the ingredients that Ohio has to offer," she recounts. "The farm-to-table movement was this concept that really grabbed me and brought me back to the basics."

It was a sentiment echoed by Joe, who grew up only minutes from Jennifer, though their paths never crossed until he was hired at Greenhouse Tavern. Jennifer was his boss — "He was gunning for my job, but I understand, it's cutthroat," she laughs — and remained his superior until she transitioned to Noodlecat and they could begin dating.

"The creativity between us never stops flowing because we're always so excited when we're dealing with the product from a raw standpoint. We spitfire off each other," she says. "That's the most fun, going home and reading cookbooks together and throwing around ideas."

Though she cherishes the 7 a.m. walks from their home to the garden to tend the crops and animals, her ultimate calling is still farm life. Within the next year, she says, they plan to have their own land. It will serve as an extension of her waste not, want not philosophy, instilled by her parents at a young age, which continues to shape her mindful approach to sustainability.

"There's just something about working with the land — there would be no chef without the grace of a farmer. And we really want to bring that full circle," Jennifer says. "We love living in the city but we're country kids at heart."

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