Jon Jernigan of Willingboro NJ, Cathedral Kitchen executive chef, dies
Cooking and teaching others how to cook, Aaron McCargo said, is “taking your humanity and putting it on display for everybody to see.”
Chef Jonathan Jernigan, who died suddenly over the July 4 holiday weekend, put his humanity on display every day, especially during his time as executive chef at Cathedral Kitchen, where he taught countless people not only how to prepare sumptuous meals, but also how to transform their lives.
Jernigan, a Willingboro native, began his career at McDonald’s, McCargo said Tuesday. The two chefs, both of whom would go on to acclaimed careers that included fine dining and television appearances, would joke about their common humble beginnings, teasing one another about Big Macs and their own culinary guilty pleasures.
“He met me as this young dude from Camden,” said McCargo. “He was my first mentor, but he was more than that: He was my brother.”
McCargo went on to fame on the Food Network, while Jernigan worked at Cherry Hill’s Greenbrier Restaurant and Camden’s Harbor League Club, served as a private caterer and appeared on food TV shows including “Chopped,” “The Chew” and “Big Daddy’s House,” McCargo’s Food Network series.
But it was his work at Cathedral Kitchen, a Camden nonprofit that feeds those in need and offers culinary career training, counseling, health and wellness services, that gave Jernigan his greatest professional fulfillment, McCargo said.
He came to Cathedral Kitchen in 2008, a professional presence in what was a grassroots effort to feed people who are homeless and hungry. He launched CK’s culinary arts training program, which so far has prepared more than 400 graduates for careers in the culinary, restaurant and hospitality fields. He stepped away from the role last year, and had opened a food truck with Anthony Aponte, a friend and former student, McCargo said.
Jernigan and McCargo also were planning to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and Jernigan was still catering private events.
Cathedral Kitchen’s staff, volunteers and guests were reeling over the news of Jernigan’s death, said Noreen Flewelling, development director.
“It’s been a tough couple of days,” she said Tuesday. “He was father, brother, uncle to so many people on the staff.”
Jernigan “loved on everybody,” said McCargo. “He never looked on (his work at Cathedral Kitchen) as a job. Listening to how he talked to students, how much he gave to them — he gave everything just like he gave everything to me.”
McCargo was “just a knucklehead kid from Camden” when he met Jernigan, who urged him to focus, to “clean up my act,” and to pursue his dreams of a culinary career. Their families were close, with Jernigan texting or calling McCargo’s mother often and both frequent visitors at the other’s home.
“I called his house ‘the halfway house,’ ” McCargo remembered. “If you needed a place to stay, he always made a place for you. He always opened his door to me.”
Part of the reason Jernigan felt such a kinship with CK’s guests, McCargo and others said, was because he’d struggled with his own problems, including alcoholism. He missed the daily interactions with others, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic closed Cathedral Kitchen to guests, and the Federal Street location gave out to-go meals only to protect staff and visitors, Flewelling said. He loaned money, then “forgot” to collect it; he gave extra meals to people who needed them and took others’ problems to heart, his friends said.
“He couldn’t stay away,” McCargo said, his voice breaking. “He wanted you to see your full potential, and he had patience for everyone but himself.”
Jernigan took pride in the food served to Cathedral Kitchen’s guests, and preserving the dignity of those in need was important to him, friends said.
“He fed them what he would eat himself. He never made anything for them he wouldn’t make for his own mother,” McCargo said. “He loved on them and sat with them and talked with them and ate with them.”
“He always said the best way for us to honor him was to devote more resources to case management,” Flewelling said.
Once funeral arrangements are made and Jernigan’s family’s wishes are known, she said Cathedral Kitchen might host a public tribute; for now, the most recent class will honor him at their graduation this week.
“He always talked about how you don’t know what circumstances brought someone here,” she added. “He wanted them treated with respect. He always said we had to be the best five-star restaurant in Camden. As great a chef as he was, I think he also had a calling to be a preacher, the way he lifted people up.”
Velton Adams was among the many whose lives were lifted by Jernigan.
The Newark native was living in a South Jersey halfway house when he came to Cathedral Kitchen to volunteer, intent on turning his life around after incarceration and his own bout with alcoholism. Jernigan talked him into enrolling in one of CK’s first culinary classes.
“He was mentoring me, and I didn’t even know it at the time,” Adams said. After graduating, he got a job with a restaurant supply company, became a manager, met his wife, bought a house and settled in Pennsauken. He’s been sober for 22 years.
Jernigan “changed my life,” said Adams — he met his wife, who worked for Project HOPE, a city healthcare provider, at Cathedral Kitchen. Jernigan catered their wedding, and became a constant source of support and friendship.
“He gave us his all. He couldn’t help himself,” Adams remembered. If guests were unruly or fights broke out outside the dining room, Jernigan would defuse the situation, urging calm, sending people on their way, but never empty-handed, and never for good.
“He never banned anybody,” Adams said. “He’d give them food to take with them, tell them to calm down, cool off, come back in a few days.”
Jernigan cared about food, about making sure everyone had enough of it, and making sure as little of it went to waste as possible. “If we couldn’t give it to the guests, he said, let’s give it to the farmers” for composting, Adams recalled. “His heart was so big.”
Cathedral Kitchen and Jernigan were big supporters of #WasteNot, an annual effort to fight food waste while supporting the urban farming internship program Center for Environmental Protection in South Camden. Jernigan and CK staff served gourmet-caliber food at the events sponsored by the Courier-Post and The Farm & Fisherman, food made from kitchen scraps many would toss out.
“He was a mentor to me, a friend and a brother,” Adams added. “He taught me how to love people in a way I never did before. I did so much damage in my past, and he just taught me love.”
McCargo said his friend was all “big smiles, big love.”
“He talked about providing nourishment to people, but he also cared about nourishing the soul.
“If you needed an orange, he gave you a whole grove.”
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at [email protected], on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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