BY: TONY TAGLAVORE
Jon Ortiz is blunt.
He does not offer any excuses. He doesn’t try to talk around the issue. “I was just fat.” How fat? “I had to be over 300 pounds. There gets to be a point where you get so big, you stop getting on a scale.”
That was when Ortiz was 21 years old. He is now 33—and 100 pounds lighter. “I’m able to work 12-hour shifts in 100-degree weather. I don’t think I would be able to do that if I was bigger,” Ortiz said with a laugh.
Ironically, it was Ortiz’s efforts to eat less—to eat healthier—that led him to where he is today. Ortiz operates Ghost Ramen, which serves food at Straycat—a nightclub in downtown Shreveport.
He also has East Side Fire, a pop-up restaurant at special events, which specializes in Latino food. “I was doing a slow-carb, a no-carb diet,” Ortiz remembers of his effort to lose weight. It got to the point where I woke up and had to eat 30 grams of protein. So, how do I make these eggs and black beans that I eat every day for breakfast taste better? How can I change it up?”
But on the way to enjoying a food career, the Goldsboro, North Carolina native took a detour. With family from his mother’s side living in Shreveport, Ortiz moved south, went to
Bossier Parish Community College, and earned a degree in Music Business. “I wanted to start my own publishing company.”
Ortiz did, while he was in college. Ortiz says he made it as far as meeting with the music supervisor for filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Ortiz flew to Los Angeles hopeful. He flew back to Shreveport defeated.
“I thought, “The music industry—this sucks. This is tough. I got beat down a little bit.” So, Ortiz picked himself up, dusted himself off, and moved on to Plan B—Food. There was just one problem. Ortiz was broke. He was bankrupt.
“I couldn’t afford to go to culinary school. I also couldn’t afford to (cook) and not work, because I already had two kids.”
So, in a new town and with time to fill between going to school and working in the kitchen of various restaurants , Ortiz started reading. “I bought the textbook from the Culinary Institute of America. Every night, since I didn’t know anybody—I was the new kid in town—I didn’t have any friends. I went home and read a chapter or two, and the next day, I would practice it in the kitchen at work. The chefs I worked for, they loved it. They would say “Go ahead and make a special. It’s less work I have to do.”
Speaking of chefs, Ortiz considers himself one, although he doesn’t have a fancy certificate or plaque from a fancy cooking school. The way Ortiz sees it, he has something better—a “real” chef’s acknowledgement and respect.
“We were out drinking for my (27th) birthday. I worked at a restaurant called Zocolo. My chef, Jason Reynolds, bought a round of shots for us. He came up to me, gave me a “Cheers!”, and said “Happy Birthday, Chef.” He knew exactly what he was doing. He was gifting me, like, “Hey man, I see you. You’re a chef.”
Coming from an area known for its pit-smoking barbecue, Ortiz has embraced Louisiana’s tastes. “Aggressive flavors,” as he calls them. But Ortiz not only loves our state’s food. He loves our state’s food history.
“There are so many stories, like how Meat Pies and Empanadas ran into each other. The difference between Cajun and Creole. It’s all very fascinating.”
As is the food and history of Ortiz’s culture. His father is from Puerto Rico, thus Ortiz’s love for Latino-inspired dishes.
“I started researching my own food, to get closer to the culture that’s in my blood. Latinos, we are all cousins. From the Caribbean down, the mix of Spanish influence on the Native Americans. You see it through food.”
In fact, Ortiz says he can tell a lot about a person based on what they eat.
“Food and history go hand-in-hand. If you can tell me what somebody eats, I can tell you where they’re from, and probably who they are as a person.”
With musical aspirations—and 100 pounds—behind him, Ortiz is focused on growing his business. He would like to do something similar to what he’s doing at Straycat with Ghost Ramen, but in different areas—and with a different style of food.
“I don’t just make Ramen. I know lots of different cultures and styles.”
Which means Ortiz probably knows a lot about you.