Danny Jira

Hop N' Wich
Cleveland, Ohio
Chef Swap Ingredient:
Fresh Oysters
Cuisine Style:
American Regional

Danny Jira can take unexpected food combinations and make wondrous meals. His late uncle inspired him and sparked his love for a profession where all foods are friends and can be fabulous when made by his hands.


About Danny Jira

Hop N’ Wich is a grandiose building with vaulted ceilings and giant fans resembling helicopter propellers cooling the vast space. The buzz of patrons blends in with the syncopated sounds of televisions and the clink of bottles at the bar where delicious concoctions like a seasonal pumpkin martini are being served.

Within this 5,500 square foot restaurant with its roster of sandwiches, appetizers, salads, and classic entrees, Danny Jira’s talent looms as he combines flavors and concepts seemingly odd. Yet, his hands make revelatory tastes of which folks have become fond.

Blueberries and onions come to mind. Who would eat them together? Folks visiting Hop N’ Wich, at 1029 Third Ave. S. in Conway, do. The quirky condiment served on the Witch Burger is wickedly good. The slight crunch of onions provides more texture than taste, as blueberries faintly sweet combine for a funky, uptown ketchup that compliments the burger well. A fresh beef patty (cooked to your liking), frangible pork belly that tempts teeth to eat it alone, and cheese showing up as pepper jack, lettuce, and tomato on a hearty bun make a moreish burger.

His brain created it. The executive chef at Hop N’ Wich is a humble man with the gargantuan capacity to conceive and deliver fun, fine food.

Jira, who entered the industry as a dishwasher, has been in the restaurant business for 22 years, and roofs of mouths have just experienced his talents on the tip of the iceberg. His epicurean aptitude is ocean-deep and goes far below the surface.

"His most simplistic dish of crispy fried oyster in the shell with remoulade and sweet and sour red onions stands out in my mind, and I've copied it many times,'' said Mark Qutiney, Jira's former supervisor at the Marriott and executive chef at Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans, who said Jira is like a son to him. "He loves paring beer with chicken thighs, and it's one that lives on. He started this is St. Kitts with the local Carib beer."

Early on, Jira, a Cleveland native, became a Food Network fan and fascinated with all things culinary. He enjoyed watching shows featuring Alton Brown, Two Fat Ladies, and The Iron Chef.

His curiosity became elevated around 14 when he started taking trips to Chicago to see his uncle, Michael “Mike” Cech.

Mike was the culinary director for a company called Lettuce Entertain You, and he did that and much more which gave his nephew the footing to figure out if butter and cream was his dream.

“Every time we visited him, I always wanted to see what his restaurants looked like and what was in his kitchen,’’ Jira said. “Most of the time, he would put me to work because my parents wanted to know if cooking was something I truly wanted to do.’’

Jira experienced a sort of boot camp right away because his uncle gave him a heaping dose of what restaurant life was like from the onset.

“On certain days, when we would come to visit, we would go to bed at midnight,’’ Jira said. “Then, he would wake me up at 3:30 and say, ‘OK, come on. We’ve got to go and make bread.’’’

His beloved uncle thoroughly educated him about restaurant life and sealed within him the intensity that still propels his profession.

After his uncle died, Jira discovered his uncle would use his days off to give him the tutelage he believed he needed.

“His staff would always question why he was there, but they saw that I was there to see the kitchen and work,’’ Jira said.

His mom, Debbie Jira, peeped at his interest in the restaurant industry the day she observed what happened at the Chagrin Valley Country Club in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

“He was there to apply for a lifeguard position, but when the chef walked by his ears perked up,’’ she said. “So, Danny wrote down ‘lifeguard’ or ‘kitchen.’ He started washing dishes there, and the kitchen has been his home ever since.”

The Cook Who Can

Jira is a book folks probably judge by the cover of his striking blue, greenish-eyes that change colors. He looks kind, has a generous smile, and could easily be mistaken for a teacher. In other words, he seems typical. Average.

Simple minds with narrow perspectives based solely on appearances wouldn’t get Jira. They would be more wrong than a rhythmless person declaring James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Prince couldn’t dance — or denying Elvis Presley knew how to gyrate his hips.

Don’t be fooled, folks. Jira knows how to shake it up in any kitchen. He is a man who knows how to make culinary moves that are electric, riveting, and all-so-satisfying.

He is a well-traveled chef who spent 15 years working for Marriott. He has represented the brand in the following places: Marco Island, Florida; New Orleans, Washington, D.C.; St. Kitts; Boston, and Cleveland.

His fire for the industry, however, was stoked in New Orleans. He ventured there about ten months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005. The monster mashed it. However, it couldn’t smash its soul. Jira began to manifest the marvel he is now in the Big Easy.

“The people embraced me,’’ said Jira, who makes gourmet beef jerky at home. “They wanted to show me what they knew, but they also wanted me to show them what I knew.’’

He entered the storied city known for its multicultural cuisine with graciousness.

“My culinary expectation was to learn with open eyes and an open mind,’’ Jira said. “I told myself, ‘You know nothing. Lean on the staff in your age group and those old enough to be your mother or grandfather. Be humble.’’’

The Big Easy enlarged its epicurean territory in manners unknown and unexpected. Jira unearthed ancillary truths about food that were refreshing and remarkable.

Simplicity came to the forefront, and his cultural compass went global while still grasping the vastness of American cuisine. He saw narratives of food history come alive and reveled in education.

“I remember the stories – the high-end businessmen and the street thugs – standing guard at Leah Chase’s (Dooky Chase’s Restaurant),’’ he said. “That was the industrial restaurant to go to. She would feed anybody and everybody.”

He became enthralled with the late great chef’s Gumbo z’Herbes, a masterpiece gumbo comprising mustard greens, collard greens, turnip greens, beet tops, cabbage, Romaine lettuce, watercress, spinach, carrot tops, sausage, ham, beef brisket, andouille sausage, spices and more.

However, “Ms. Carol,” the room service cook at the Marriott where he worked in New Orleans, scolded him for not being able to cook grits properly.

“I got yelled at for salting my water before I made grits,’’ Jira said between chuckles while sitting in an office upstairs at Hop N’ Wich. It is one of several properties he supervises as culinary director of Coastal Concepts. “So, I learned how to cook grits in New Orleans.”

After she told him off, he learned the following: Don’t salt the water. Let the water come to a simmer. Then, add butter. Let that melt. When the water is nearly to a boil, then add cream. Bring all of that to a rolling boil. Add the grits. Whisk it all together. Kill the heat. Don’t let the grits cook anymore from there. Then, you season it.

It’s Good – Whatever It Is

Here's a confession: Jira’s parents don’t always know or understand how and what their middle son cooks.

He concocts whimsical stuff, and they eat. They just know it will be tasty.

Once they visited him in St. Kitts for his birthday. The fridge was full and the cupboards. Their son took the contents of both and made something sensational.

“We don’t know what it was,’’ but it was different dishes,’’ Debbie Jira said. “It was a gourmet meal.”

His employees said he is a proficient chef who is humble and embraces ideas from everyone willing to share them.

“Chef Danny is laidback, easy-going, and fun,’’ said John Loughlin, a chef at Hop N’ Wich. “He is always in a pleasant mood. I have never seen him lose it. He is always calm and level-headed. One of the best things I enjoy about working with him is he’s open to everybody’s suggestions and ideas. It doesn’t always have to be his ideas and his way because he’s the chef. He lets all of us have input on stuff.”

Jira is a boss fond of underscoring and he takes meek food to the mountaintop.

“Give me potatoes, mustard, pretzels, pork, and cabbage,’’ he said. “Off of those five ingredients, give me 10 minutes, and I can give you 30 different dishes with different combinations.”

Yes, it sounds pompous. But this Culinary Institute of America graduate has highfalutin skills you can taste and see.

And that isn’t too shabby for this former picky eater, who even put ketchup on his waffles.

By Johanna Wilson Jones

“My culinary expectation was to learn with open eyes and an open mind. I told myself, ‘You know nothing. Lean on the staff in your age group and those old enough to be your mother or grandfather. Be humble.’’

Danny Jira
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