It's easy to overlook Cincinnati as a food city, but this town nestled on the Ohio River has seen a big food revolution in the past few years, with industry veterans making room for accomplished younger chefs. Many of those upstarts are making their mark in the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which has been ballooning with residential and commercial spaces alike.
With side-by-side restaurants Senate Pub and the more upscale Abigail Street, Chef Dan Wright often sees lines of customers winding down Vine Street, waiting for cocktails and sausages at Senate or wine on tap and Mediterranean-Middle Eastern flavors at Abigail. A Food and Wine "Best New Chef" of the Great Lakes region, Wright worked primarily in LA and Chicago before moving to his wife's hometown.
He's already expanding into a third restaurant, which will focus on barbecue when it opens in late summer or early fall. And his recently published Senate: Street and Savory cookbook is a beautiful testament to how chef-honed skills and fresh ingredients can elevate the most American of meats. Here's a glimpse into his kitchens.
Favorite Kitchen Tool
I can't say I'd fight somebody for a kitchen item, but a good knife gets me close. Most of my chef knives have actually come from my family or people I love that want to give me something chef-friendly. I have knives from my dad and mom, from my wife, and from sous chefs of the past. When somebody's worked here long enough and they're parting ways, we usually give them one, too. It varies with everyone. My favorite knife company in the world is Korin in New York. If you've never been there, you need to go. They kick ass.
Item Worth Hoarding
I have a lot of cookbooks that people have given me as gifts over time—over 300. They're the only thing that I don't lend out easily. When a cook borrows one I make them give me a driver's license, like I'm a library. One of my favorites is the first real cookbook I got into—Charlie Trotter's Seafood. I absolutely love the book. I was into anything that was about butchering sea food and pairing with wine and such at the time, and it was basically the precursor to the French Laundry and Alinea cookbooks. So this was one of the first that really got me into cooking. Reading White Heat by Marco Pierre White really made me want to be a chef, just because he's kind of an arrogant asshole and I love it.
All my restaurants have a wood-burning grill, and I don't know if I could ever go back to a conventional gas grill, just because of the flavor that it imparts in the food. The first one was custom made; the other is from Aztec. The first one wasn't custom made for us; it was made for a restaurant called Bandera in Chicago. Seven years or so ago Chicago passed a ban on Michigan Avenue where you can't use any open fuel sources, so as we were opening Senate I was looking online for a used grill with a very specific dimension, and this thing popped up, and then I found out that it came from this restaurant I used to like and look out on across the street at my first chef job, and now it's in Cincinnati at our restaurant.
Wood imparts a completely different flavor; we use a lot of white oak and ash. I feel like the grills at both restaurants are our heart and soul, which is why they're the two hardest stations to work, since most of the food is stopping at those stations before it gets plated. And when you walk in the restaurant there's a different smell and feel and everything; it gets people excited to eat.
Item With Saving from a Kitchen Fire
I would definitely say my sous chef; the foundation or building block of my whole restaurant. But as far as inanimate items go, my knives and my VitaPrep blender; it's one of those things that I find to be a need in every kitchen. We use it for a ton of shit—whipping up pestos, hollandaise, béarnaise, vinaigrettes, and blending spices. Blending spices is the biggest thing.
Intimate Family Connection
I grew up from an Irish and Polish family, so I grew up eating a ton of Polish food from my mom's side. But before my grandparents migrated here from Poland my family owned a brewery, and I have one of their last existing bottles. It's a lager; the bottle itself is probably 60 or 70 years old, and still unopened. I never plan on opening it. It reminds me of my grandparents, and how they influenced my mother into being a great cook, and then how she influenced me to be a great cook.
Morton's kosher salt. I couldn't deal without it. There's Crystal salt, which I'm not a huge fan of, and there's sea salt, which I don't like, and I don't feel the need for pink Himalayan salt, as things tend to get over-seasoned with it, and table salt is awful. I like the timing of the way Morton's kosher breaks down with food; it's virtually impossible to over-salt food with it.
We use a shit ton of spices at Abigail street, and so I'd be at a loss if I didn't have access to a spice cupboard. Most of the flavor imparted in our food is from spice blends. We order from a lot of places, including a Middle Eastern importer who sends me ten pounds of cumin and coriander seeds at a time, and other things from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. If you're going to have a menu that you want to taste like Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, you might as well order your spices from there and blend them into what you want from them.
Three days after we opened Senate, my father passed away. We found out he had cancer a month and a half before, when they said he had six months. He had helped me with the construction process because he was a contractor, and he basically held out to see the restaurant open; it was probably the hardest day of my life, when I found that out. It's never easy to bury a parent, but when I had to go through his stuff there were two things that I really wanted; one was his lighter that he carried through Vietnam with him that said, "You and me God?" And then the other one was this license plate frame that he stole off a four-star general's Jeep in Vietnam.
So it's hanging in the restaurant—since both of the restaurants have four stars—behind the liquor in Senate. Most of the bartenders know what it is, but most of the staff has no clue. My dad probably would have gotten into a ton of shit if they knew he'd stolen it. Him spending time in the military definitely defined why I wanted to become a chef, why a fucked up kid like myself wound up finding the structure he needed in the kitchen. Kitchens aren't highly militant, but the hierarchy is similar. Most of us don't like to be told what to do but, once you get your ego checked it sets you in a different direction. That plate is something that's always going to remain at Senate.
How He Makes His Mark
The overall attitude of the kitchen is what makes it mine. I've worked at other places before and been a chef at places that didn't belong to me, and knowing that this place is mine means there's no undermining of people doing things any other way. I'm there, working next to the guys; I'm busting my ass, so everyone else is going to bust their ass around me. I've bartended, I've served, I've done everything else in this aspect of the industry, so I understand that my bartenders want a drink at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, and so if it's that one shot that gets them through the night or that shift beer for my cooks, I'm going to give it to them. If you don't do it they're going to find a way to steal the fucking drink anyhow.
This is still fun for me; I still enjoy doing this everyday, so hopefully my perspective makes it fun. I've been to places where chefs don't give a shit, or the cooks don't necessarily want to be cooking the food they're making, and they're just there to get a check. I think we're good at hiring people who just aren't here to get a check; they love the things that we're doing.