Letting the ingredients shine
Simplicity works for Mockingbird Kitchens
Jim Martin has spent the bulk of his life in restaurants and kitchens. These days, he is chef/owner of Mockingbird Kitchens with his wife, Zoe Martin. The downtown eatery opened this past spring, and it’s been an instant hit with Fort Wayne foodies who celebrate the Martins’ creative, fresh combinations.
But the Martins took a winding road to their sunny restaurant on East Wayne Street. Jim Martin grew up in Fort Wayne and graduated from Concordia High School before studying culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University’s now-closed Charleston, S.C., branch. After graduation, he worked in the South Carolina city for several years.
“I fell in love with the city, the culture and the music,” Jim said. He also fell in love with a bartender he’d met, the woman who’s now his wife.
“We decided on our wedding day” to move back to Fort Wayne, Zoe said, because the couple wanted to be closer to Jim’s relatives.
Once back in the Summit City, Jim worked at a variety of places, including the Blu Tomato and the Blu City Tavern, before he became the executive chef of the banquet hall and restaurant at the Holiday Inn on East Coliseum Boulevard, where he worked with students from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne’s hospitality program.
“It was a really cool program,” Jim said. “It gave those kids an idea of what it was like running a restaurant.”
That said, the couple had a dream.
“We got a little antsy,” Zoe admitted. “Somebody of Jim’s caliber gets antsy working for someone else.”
Jim was itching to open his own restaurant, to have a chance to make delicious food with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. At first, the couple considered opening a food truck, but with two kids at home, sons Cash, 6, and J.D., 3, they needed year-round income.
“We wanted to be downtown,” Jim said. “We both saw the growth that was happening. The people in West Central are really into the food culture.”
And so when the café inside Cottage Flowers became available, Jim and Zoe jumped.
“We thought the location was great,” Jim said. “Wayne Street is hopping!”
The menu is fresh and light for summer, featuring local produce and meats whenever possible. A roasted beet sandwich incorporates bread from Fort Wayne’s Zinnia Bakery on State Boulevard. On Saturday mornings in the summer, Jim buys fresh produce from vendors at the Barr Street Market, just next door to the restaurant. His regular produce vendors are Bear Arcana Farm and Cedar Creek Produce, both in Allen County. He believes in letting the ingredients shine.
“Simple is better,” he said. “Don’t cloud it up with techniques.”
Jim first experienced the “farm-to-fork” culinary concept while working in Charleston.
“It was refreshing to see that style of cooking, cooking by the seasons,” he recalled. “I really wanted to bring that here. We just really want to have fresh products and let them step forward.”
That’s why you won’t find a fryer or heat lamps at Mockingbird Kitchens. No pre-bagged salad, no factory mass-produced meats. No reheated pre-made anything. It’s all cooked to order, with daily specials depending on what’s in season at the moment.
“That’s how we eat at our house,” Jim said. “Neither of (our children) has ever tasted soda.”
An interesting choice, and one you don’t often see offered by Midwestern restaurants, is the gravlax salad, cured salmon served with mixed greens, olive salad, hard-boiled egg, dill-shallot cream and toast. Zoe is the baker, creating off-the-wall cookies and cupcakes including a root beer float cookie that has to be tasted to be believed.
And about the name? Jim said the mockingbird pays tribute to other birds by mimicking their songs. Mockingbird Kitchens honors their ingredients by letting them be themselves.
Mockingbird Kitchens’ Kale Pesto
Makes 6-8 cups
4 cups blanched kale
½ cup roasted garlic
1 cup Parmesan cheese (shredded)
1 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup olive oil
1. Put kale, garlic and vegetable oil in blender, at medium speed blend into a paste. Add the rest of the ingredients and puree until smooth consistency is reached.
2. Taste and re-season if necessary. Use as a pasta sauce, as a spread for sandwiches or mix with butter and use as a finishing accent for steaks, chicken or seafood.
First appeared in the August 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.