Earning a Seat at the Table: Milktooth Gets Indy Food Scene on the Map

The interior of Milktooth

Frying cornmeal-battered orange roughy with his mother, and watching it burn and pop all over the stove is where Jonathan Brooks, the owner and chef of Milktooth, got his start in cooking. His mom wasn’t the best cook, but she made meals every single night when Brooks was growing up, and he acted as her right hand man in the kitchen.

Brooks fell in love with cooking professionally when he worked as a dishwasher and helped with prep tasks on busy nights. Seventeen years later, he has spent more than half his life working in the restaurant industry.

After spending time on the West Coast and Chicago, Brooks came back to his home state Indiana and opened Milktooth—something he had fantasized about for years, but finally became a reality after he decided Indianapolis was an accessible place where he could be successful. Nearly three years later, Milktooth has been more successful than Brooks ever imagined.

The eclectic garage-turned-restaurant with “cute vintage plates and fucking bullshit like that,” as Brooks says, has been nationally recognized and awarded. Milktooth was named one of Bon Appétit’s 10 Best New Restaurants in 2015 and Brooks was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef.

Milktooth has gotten so much publicity that Brooks has heard other restaurant owners say things like, “We would be more popular if we had Jon’s PR.” But, Brooks hasn’t spent a single penny on public relations or advertising. He markets Milktooth solely through social media.

“We don’t really even do it in a formulaic way,” Brooks says.

The Milktooth Instagram and Twitter feeds are full of honest posts that show day-to-day life at the restaurant. To show a drink special, Brooks might post a picture of someone chugging a beer and mention the special in the caption. He likes to keep Milktooth’s accounts honest and straightforward, mimicking the values he aims to uphold in the restaurant.

Brooks is still trying to wrap his head around the amount of attention Milktooth has received.

“Every single thing about this restaurant has been so fun—so surreal and exciting,” he says. “It’s just made me really proud of the work that my staff does every single day, that it’s acknowledged by people all across the nation.”

At first, Brooks didn’t like all the attention. He felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. But now, he loves the publicity. It puts Milktooth and Indianapolis in the conversation with restaurants and chefs that he respects and has been blown away by. Sometimes he just has to sit back, laugh, and think, “Man, we’re just this little breakfast restaurant in Indianapolis.”

Brooks feels lucky to be able to bring attention to the Indianapolis scene. He believes the Indianapolis community is humble and the people have a sense of humility and a commitment to genuine hospitality.

The aspect of Indy that Brooks feels is underappreciated is the quality of ingredients chefs have to work with. He uses fruits, vegetables, and meat from local farms. With modern shipping, Brooks is able to have fresh fish delivered next day to use in his restaurant.

“The world of food now is borderless, and so exciting in that way,” Brooks says.

Inspiration is everywhere for Brooks. He is inspired by everything from fast food to world cuisine. Bad food pushes him to make good food. Literature and reading about food motivate him to create new dishes. Travel is also a huge influencer. His biggest inspiration though, is his staff. He loves seeing what his sous-chef and pastry chef create.

Brooks is able to be creative because he owns his restaurant and doesn’t have anyone telling him what he can and can’t do. The ability to make mistakes and take risks is a freedom Brooks holds at a high importance. Brooks came into restaurant ownership with naivety and cockiness that allowed him to push boundaries and create something new in the Indianapolis food scene. He wanted to have a restaurant with a fun, happy, loud, and exciting atmosphere.

Something Brooks wishes he would’ve known when he first opened Milktooth is the importance of taking personal time away from the restaurant. He was controlling in the beginning, but he has learned to give up some control and trust his staff. He’s enjoyed stepping back and watching others succeed.

His ability to give up control is going to come in handy as Brooks opens his new restaurant, Beholder, which will be wine-focused with tasting and á la carte menus. Brooks and his partner want to bring a fresh, young energy and the same fame that Milktooth has, but to a more fine dining setting. Milktooth is breakfast only and Beholder will be dinner only, but Brooks will still have to balance work between the two.

He is confident in his employees and is giving them the opportunity to run the restaurant. He says the key is to have good, open communication.

“That sounds really simple and easy, but it’s terrifying and I’m not sure that I’ll be good at it, but I have to try,” Brooks says.

Though letting go of some control can be difficult for Brooks, it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of his job. He has gotten Milktooth to a thriving point where he feels comfortable stepping back from it.

Photography by Aliza Brown.