“You grow up with a chip on your shoulder, people talk sh*t about Jacksonville and you can either make a difference here or keep talking sh*t. I strive to make a difference,” said Jonathan Insetta, chef and owner of Black Sheep Restaurant Group.
In terms of investment, Insetta and his team have poured all they have into growing the culinary economy here in Jacksonville. His resume includes 10 years of owning restaurants, 20 years of working in kitchens, five businesses, dozens of chefs, hundreds of dishes, thousands of overtime shifts and millions of darn good fries.
Insetta, a Jacksonville native, got his start in the Avondale staple, The Casbah, as a manager at the not-yet-burned-out age of 19. After proper training at Florida State College at Jacksonville and the famous Culinary Institute of America, Insetta took everything he learned to Miami for an externship.
“The plan was to move back to New York and just cook,” Insetta said.
Nothing ever goes as planned, and after his father sold his company, he asked Insetta to come home to work on a project together. Chew was the first restaurant Insetta opened with the help of few great people including Mike Mckinney, who is now the executive chef of Restaurant Orsay.
“Chew was before its time. Emotionally and financially it was tough, it was really tough. We had acclaim, but then the market crashed. We did all the right things, but the numbers didn’t work out,” Insetta said.
Two years into Chew, they got an offer to take over Crush, another Avondale staple that Insetta got to sink his teeth into. A quick one-year turnaround and what once was Crush became Restaurant Orsay.
“Almost 10 years later, and we still have Crush items on our Orsay menu. The tartare and Haricots Verts salad — we wanted to keep that. These were dishes that made an impact on me. I was never exposed to them before,” Insetta said.
During summer trips to New York every year, Insetta grew to love and long for Italian food. His dad’s best friend was a second-generation restauranter.
“Like old-school Italian mob movie restaurants, those were my early memories of food. What left the biggest impression was when we visited their farm in Naples, Italy. They made their own cheese, grew their own vegetables. It stuck with me. I blame my dad’s best friend for my love of the industry,” Insetta said. “Growing up in Mandarin we had illegal chickens, and I hated them. I had all these garden chores that my friends didn’t have. I was learning to appreciate growing and picking your own vegetables without knowing it at the time.”
“My goal since school was to build this, owning multiple places. I wanted to be a positive force of change where I grew up. I was in my 20s when I lived in Five Points and Riverside. I was right down the street from where Black Sheep is now. I loved these historic areas,” Insetta said.
At the time his culinary career began, these underutilized areas were prime real estate. The team built the iconic and very hard to miss, triangle-shaped, award-winning, three-story masterpiece that is Black Sheep from the ground up.
“You see other cities and enjoy things there, but I want the same for Jacksonville. We have had opportunities in other places, but the community here is priceless. Chefs want the entirety of Jacksonville to succeed not just themselves and there is no cutthroat bullsh*t here. In other cities, it is the opposite. We are a rare community of love, and we are in a special place in the industry right now, regionally and nationally,” Insetta said.
Insetta’s story of love for the Jacksonville culinary scene is condensed in a small five-mile radius, yet it radiates through the entire city. With roots grown so deep into Jacksonville, it’s no surprise that Insetta and his team are flourishing.
“My team aren’t just my friends, they are my family, and I am lucky to not be doing it alone, I couldn’t. They are why we succeed. We have a common goal and make sacrifices for it,” Insetta said.
Restaurant Orsay, Black Sheep, Black Sheep at Intuition Ale Works and Bellwether are just a few of the projects they have taken on in the last 10 years. There is no end in sight for this crew, and the people of Jacksonville are better off for it.
By Calli Webb | Staff Writer