Jon Gosselin in the Wilderness

As part of the headlining duo of Jon & Kate Plus 8, he ruled the reality-TV roost. Then his life crashed and burned, and five years later he’s working as a maître d’ and living in a cabin in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania.

Jon Gosselin in the wilderness Phillymag

Photography by Chris Crisman, Prop Styling by Lauren Payne, Styling by Kara Bettie Speckhals, All Wardrobe Provided by Sugarcube and Barbour.

Following his Friday-night shift at the better of the two restaurants in Stouchsburg, Pennsylvania, Jon Gosselin emerges from its kitchen and asks if I want to try something he made. A minute later he comes back with two plates of beef and Hawaiian fried rice and sets them down at the bar. (You may remember a variation of this meal from Jon & Kate Plus 8, Season Four, Episode Four: “Korean Dinner.” Recap: Despite Kate’s insistence on mixing the green and white onions he’d requested she keep segregated, Jon’s dinner is a success.) “Beef sauté with mushrooms and onions,” he elaborates. “Prime rib. We cut it all up, sautéed it.”

He’s wearing dark-washed jeans, a cuff-linked shirt and a blue blazer—an outfit that speaks to his recent promotion from server to maître d’ here at the Black Dog Cafe. The familiar face is ruddier and rounder than it used to be, coarsened by four years of unrestricted drinking and cigarette smoking. His chinstrap/goatee combo is neatly groomed, and the sparse hair on his head—he’s 36 now—is still spiked upward, as if saluting the infamous summer of 2009, when he split up with Kate, moved to New York, and embarked upon a series of tabloid-recorded liaisons.

Wait. Jon didn’t actually make our food. “Actually, I say ‘we.’ Greg cooked it,” he says. Greg is the sous-chef. Jon looks at me a little bashfully. “I told him what to add.”

Jon started working at the Black Dog in August. Located in a 600-person hamlet 18 miles west of Reading, it’s a folksy wiener-schnitzel joint with delusions of Asian fusion grandeur—the perfect place for Jon to rehabilitate his image and reclaim his mantle as the nation’s preferred Gosselin.

“I started to think about my brand,” he says, explaining the larger meaning of this new gig. “I’m still technically famous. I mean, you’re here. Heh.” He continues: “How can you get people in the door? It’s not the entertainment industry, but it’s the food industry. Cross-branding marketing right there.” (An appraisal of the cross-branding marketing: By 10 p.m. there are three married couples at the end of the bar, a lone drinker to our left, and a co-worker who went to high school with Jon to our right.)

Jon gets up, asks me what I’m drinking, fixes himself a second whiskey, then forgets to bring me anything. “The main thing the tabloids did was separate me from my brand,” he says. “My brand was Jon & Kate Plus 8. Now that I’m divorced? My new brand, because of the tabloids, is Jon Gosselin.” He’s ambivalent about this. Mainly, he’s baffled that his post-Kate dalliances garnered the notoriety they did. “In 2009, I was on 52 covers. Most-photographed person in 2009.”

The bad-boy image, he theorizes, was abetted by the public’s inability to grasp the lag between when an episode was filmed and when it aired. The same week he’d be on the cover of In Touch Weekly, rocking an Ed Hardy tee with a 22-year-old on his arm, the show’s five million to 10 million nightly viewers were watching a younger, more married version of him. He surveys the restaurant. “This is Middle America. This is not the city. There’s New York and Philadelphia and there’s L.A.,” he says, gaining steam. “But Middle America’s all in between! That’s the viewing population! Those people live. That’s what they do. You and I go out, we read, we educate ourselves, we do a lot of stuff. … They watch TV.” He pauses. “I don’t even have a TV.”