Portland Catholic Charities Chef Jon Wirtis — and a Recipe for Tortilla Lasagna

‘The mission here is to help people with intellectual disabilities in a culinary training program,’ says Jon Wirtis. ‘We make 2,500 meals a month for people who are food insecure, homeless and in transitional housing.’

Chef Jon Wirtis
Chef Jon Wirtis (photo: Jon Wirtis)

A native Californian, Jon Wirtis has traveled through the culinary world since childhood. He recalled his dad’s restaurant business, where Wirtis helped make sandwiches, then worked as a busboy, then as a prep cook and a pastry chef. Finally, in college he worked for a local coffee shop. He told the owner that he was a really good breakfast cook because his dad taught him how to cook eggs, so he moved Wirtis to a bistro.

Obviously, his cooking skills improved, so he upgraded to working at a restaurant while at Humboldt State University in Arcadia, California. After graduation he then entered the Culinary Institute of America in New York. At that point, he realized that he loved cooking more than going to school, so he left his college years and moved on. After all, after cooking for 12 years, Wirtis knew that all he wanted to be as an adult was a chef.

His family background also has accounted for his passion for cooking. As he explained, “I grew up in a Jewish family,” he said, “and food is all a part of our culture. I chose not to be an accountant, but my mom was really supportive of all I did, and all through my culinary school, she would say, ‘My son is going to be a good cook.’”

After graduation from the Culinary Institute of America, he moved to San Diego to work as a banquet chef at a new Marriot Hotel. He then moved up to Portland, Oregon, where he currently lives and works. His first job was as chef/instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, where he worked for five years before accepting a cook’s job at McCormick and Schmick’s. “They hired me as a cook,” he said, “but first they said, ‘Prove yourself; otherwise you are just a good writer.’ I worked for them for over 10 years and was the executive chef at three of their restaurants.”

Wirtis then moved to Arizona for several years and then back to Portland, explaining that having shifted his life vision to working in the nonprofit world, he ended up this year working at Catholic Charities in Portland. He has embraced his work there as Executive Chef/Instructor, and as the website states, Wirtis is passionate about food and people, making this an ideal job.

As Wirtis explained, “The mission here is to help people with intellectual disabilities in a culinary training program. We make 2,500 meals a month for people who are food insecure, homeless and in transitional housing. … It is more about the mission than anything else.”  He added that Portland has a large homeless community with many street people camping with tents all around.

Considering all his cooking and eating experiences, Wirtis still reverts to his childhood for picking his favorite foods.

“I love traditional home cooking,” he said. “I do a lot of Mom’s recipes, like Mom’s meatloaf … my mom’s brisket, and for holidays, gefilte fish. … I can still taste my mom’s mac and cheese. It was about as Betty Cocker as it comes — but it just gives me comfort when I eat it. I have grandma’s kugel recipe and it is the people you remember when making it for yourself. … And that is what I love about food — it brings you alive.” 

Wirtis summed it up well: “Food heals, helps in need, brings people together, and it is incredible.”

 

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Tortilla Lasagna

Serves 6 to 8 people

Sauce:

  • 7 cups diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 red onions, chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon salt, pepper and garlic blend
  • 2 tablespoons sugar

Filling:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3 red onions, diced
  • 4 zucchini, diced
  • 1 1/2 pounds mix of roasted corn and black beans
  • 1 pound spinach, steamed and squeezed dry
  • 1/2 cup salt, ground pepper, and minced garlic
  • About 1/2 quart each of shredded cheddar, ricotta and cotija cheese, mixed
  • 3 eggs
  • 5 pounds braised and shredded chicken

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. To make the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Purée the ingredients, return to the bowl.

To make the filling, combine all the ingredients except the spinach in a large bowl and toss with the oil. Steam the spinach, and set aside. Lightly roast the filling ingredients and combine with the chopped, cooked spinach.

Combine the braised, shredded chicken and the cheese mix and eggs.

Spread the bottom of a 9x13 pan with some of the sauce. Top with two flour tortillas. Add some roasted vegetable mix then chicken and cheese mix. Repeat with tortilla, sauce, roasted veggies and chicken/cheese mix till you have three layers.

Cover, and bake for one hour. Remove the cover, return to the oven, and cook 15 minutes more. Remove from the oven, and let the lasagna cool for 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

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