Salem restaurant owner semifinalist for James Beard “Best Chef: Northwest” award

Jonathan Jones, co-owner of Epilogue Kitchen and Cocktails on Jan. 18, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When the Instagram account for Salem’s Epilogue Kitchen and Cocktails got a congratulatory direct message on Feb. 23, owner Jonathan Jones didn’t know what it was for.

Jones was soon stunned to learn he was one of 14 semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific award. He was the only semifinalist from Salem.

The James Beard Awards recognize exceptional professionals in the culinary and food media industries and their work toward racial and gender equality, community, sustainability and “a culture where all can thrive,” according to statement from the foundation, which described the awards as being “among the nation’s most prestigious honors.”

“(I) lost it a little bit,” he said. “If you’re in any way, serious about the culinary world, it’s a pretty major deal and definitely something that I’ve had my eye on my entire career as sort of the loftiest ambition.”

Jones describes Epilogue’s cuisine as Appalachian. “It’s higher-end mountain food through the lens of the Black diaspora,” he said.

The restaurant serves items like chicken and waffles, crab cakes and Philly cheesesteaks. The protein is the centerpiece but not the only flavor, Jones said, with lots of greens, legumes and root vegetables that “at a different time would be considered poverty foods.”

He said they can’t keep the Confit duck leg in stock, and pork chops are the second-most popular menu item.

“I think when presented an opportunity to eat duck, people will take that opportunity because it’s not that common. And then the pork chop, it sells itself,” he said. “It’s an inch-and-a-half-thick pork chop, and a lot of places just don’t really know how to cook pork to be brutally honest. We do.”

Finalists for the award will be announced March 16. “No matter what happens, I consider being a semifinalist a victory for me. I am so honored and grateful to get even this far,” he said.

That same day will mark three years since Jones and his wife, Maura Ryan, opened Epilogue for business at 130 High Street SE in Salem.

They met in high school in Wisconsin after he moved from southeast Pennsylvania, and the pair moved to Salem in 2014.

They operated a food truck, Prologue Pastries & Sandwich Library, from around 2016 to 2018. During that time, they served Appalachian cuisine until they eventually partnered with Salem Ale Works and started focusing more on serving pub fare. They opened Epilogue in March 2019.

Jones said he sees his placement as a semifinalist as recognition from the food industry. 

“It means a lot to have the people who are doing the work alongside you to recognize the work that you’re doing,” he said. “Not to say that recognition from the public isn’t important, because it is and I care deeply about that. But it means something different when it’s when it’s within whatever industry you may be a part of.”

Jonathan Jones, co-owner of Epilogue Kitchen and Cocktails passes out coffee and free meals to community members during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event on Jan. 18, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Jones has been a vocal member of Salem’s Black Lives Matter movement. His restaurant was the scene of a New Years’ Day clash in 2021 between a group protecting the storefront and members of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and others, with nearly 50 officers intervening to separate the two groups.

Eric Floyd Oelkers, 37 of Beaverton, was charged in May 2021 with second-degree criminal mischief and second-degree bias crime. The charges allege Oelkers damaged and tampered with a window at Epilogue on Dec. 4, 2020. Jones said Oelkers covered a poster they had hanging inside on the window.

Jones said the restaurant has been vandalized a couple of other times with grease paint, and they have received death threats and racist threats through voicemails and online.

“There’s been a not insignificant portion of the Salem population that has actively tried to beat us down, shut us down, drive us out, and we have persevered and the staff has persevered through all of that,” he said.

Their restaurant has stayed afloat after having to temporarily close and reopen the dining room four times during the pandemic. Jones said Epilogue is also one of two restaurants in Salem that require proof of vaccination, the other being Black Sheep. Cafe & Catering.

“It’s very lonely to have that because all of the ire is sort of directed at you,” he said. “We’ve gotten just brigaded online with a lot of one-star reviews that aren’t real, but we can’t get rid of them. And so to have the industry and the professionals acknowledge what we’re doing at a time when half the public is actively trying to sabotage what we’re doing, it just makes it hit a little harder. It feels really good.”

Jones said he will always work in the service industry and loves using the platform of service to bring people together to share ideas.

“Cooking with love and with intention means that you take into account a lot more than the dollars that come through the door,” he said. “If I can get other business owners to adopt even a portion of that mentality, then I think our community would be a lot stronger.”

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Jonathan Jones was one of 14 semifinalists, not 10. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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