Chef John Thomas, or JT as he is known to his friends, appears to be a happy-go-lucky type of guy. The former executive chef at Tryst, he replaced his mentor, Nick Morforgen, who stepped down as executive chef at 32 East this past September. Some might have been be intimidated by this — after all, Morforgen had been the beloved chef for the past 17 years — but Thomas was invigorated by the challenge.
“I see it as an opportunity not only to keep the clients that have been coming for years, [but to] keep them happy. To me, Nick set the standard and the legacy in Delray Beach, not only of this restaurant but the hundreds of restaurants that are here. I feel it’s my job to maintain the legacy he laid out for me.”
Thomas is grateful to Morforgen, who hired him at the beginning of his career as a line cook after he had graduated from Florida Culinary School (now Lincoln Tech) and worked a few jobs. It was under his tutelage that Thomas realized he had to up his game.
“I met him and his crew back in 2003, and that’s when I really realized I kind of had to relearn everything. People [here] were taking it more seriously.” He fidgets with his black-rimmed glasses that stubbornly slip off the bridge of his nose. “It was the real deal at this point.”
Throughout his career, Thomas hopped around different restaurants, honing his skills and his style, always returning to 32 East.
“It’s always been that revolving door for me. It’s always been trying to go, whether it was for money or just whatever reason that people are drawn away from wherever they are, but I always came back! This is the environment that I always flourished in and I always wanted to be a part of.”
Thomas is excited to be at the helm of the restaurant where he started. He is honored to take over for Morforgen, with whom he always remained in touch.
“He’s always going to be ‘my chef,'” he tells New Times, doing air quotes for extra emphasis. “You know what I mean. He’s my mentor. I’d like to call myself one of his proteges.”
Thomas wants to keep regulars at 32 East happy, so he’s kept classic dishes like the Bistro-style Burger, an 8-oz. chuck/brisket/short-rib blend that is a huge hit. He’s also introducing some of the staple offerings with a new flair.
“For instance, in the wintertime there’s always been, in the past, a pork dish, like a pork chop or a pork tenderloin. So, to twist that up a bit and give it a little more, maybe, progressiveness, maybe some ethnicity, we did sweet potato-masa dumplings, pear molé, and we’re using Iberico Pluma steak. It’s a Spanish-style butcher cut from Iberico pigs, the Pato Negro, and it’s really awesome. It’s really super tender, delicious flavor.”
Thomas is allowing his style, which he says keeps changing over the years, to shine. When asked to define it, he takes a deep breath, pauses, and grins, giving the question a lot of thought.
“It’s more of a global thing to me because I think latitudes speak a lot about cuisines, so if you’re in North Carolina, that latitude can be stretched all around the world to Korea.”
He holds an imaginary globe with one hand and with his finger traces a semicircle.
“To me, because they smoke a lot of meat and use a lot of pickling, they kind of tie together. So, I’m kind of all over the place. My roots start with American Southern food, but I am very comfortable with Asian cooking and then, working so closely with Nick [Morforgen], I’m very comfortable with Mediterranean food and Italian-style foods. And, obviously, behind all of that, the foundation of everyone is the classic French cuisine.”
That Asian influence is apparent in the tuna appetizer, another staple Thomas has transformed.
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“We’re doing a tuna poke with Yuzu and a Sriracha-miso aioli,” elaborates Thomas. It also has pomegranates, sesame, scallions, and local radishes. “We’re still working with all the local farms, like chef Nick used to.”
The clientele has been receptive to the new additions and to Thomas’s lead in general. New Times asks if Thomas feels he’s back home now.
“Yeah, I do. We've got a lot of new people in here, a new staff. They’re going to do great. I’m looking forward to just rockin’ out through the holidays and through the season and... I feel like we’ve got big shoes to fill — we've got to prove ourselves to the public — and I’m really looking forward to doing that.”