In the kitchen with Daniel Wright: Self-professed 'pusher of street food' cooks up next chapter

CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.

Daniel Wright

"It’s about keeping it simple, and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. You shouldn’t put anything on the plate for the sake of making it look good. You don’t have to put microgreens on everything.”

This self-professed "pusher of gourmet street food," has won more accolades than you can shake a hot dog at.  His culinary chops have snapped foodies into an upright position, and his tongue-in-cheek brand of upscale hot dogs has earned him frequent spreads in national media like Food and Wine magazine.

Wright, the chef and owner of Senate and Abigail Street in Over-the-Rhine, began cooking out of necessity. 

“My parents divorced when I was eight. When my mother went back to work, my brother and I were left to fend for ourselves,” he said.

Wright remembers his freewheeling experiments in the kitchen, especially with chop suey-style Chinese food. 

“My poor family braved their way through some really bad meals,” he said. 

Fortunately, the Chicago native, grew up around skillful cooks. He makes no bones about preferring to hang out with the women in his family, especially during hunting season. 

“I come from a big hunting family. The men would go hunting, while the women would stay at home and cook,” Wright said. “I didn’t want to go freeze my ass off at 5 in the morning to go hunting. It wasn’t my thing,” he said. 

Wright stayed warm with his mother, grandmother and aunts, who taught him how to cook. At the hands of his Irish and Polish relatives he learned to make pierogi and other dishes.

In high school, Wright played football and served as the captain of the wrestling team. However, sports could not keep him away from the draw of home economics. 

“I dropped out of wrestling, and got into home economics. I really liked the aspect of cooking,” Wright said.

After high school, Wright headed to Rhode Island to pursue his passion for cooking at Johnson & Wales University. He was one class away from graduation when he changed course. 

“I was sent to a bad internship in Chicago," Wright recounted. He was relegated to the role of food assembler, mass producing food for the facility. 

"I was putting food on conveyor belts--a dollop of mashed potatoes, a dose of sauce out of a sauce gun. I wanted to cook food. That wasn’t cooking food,” Wright recalled. The exasperating situation, and his unshakable trust in himself, prompted him to leave college and walk straight into the industry.

Wright worked in leading restaurants in Chicago for a while, including Gordon and Blackbird, before taking on a head chef stint in Los Angeles for a couple of years. He eventually moved back to Chicago to head up the kitchen at Souk. It was there he met his wife, Lana.

In late 2007, they moved to Cincinnati, Lana's hometown, to open their own restaurant. When Wright saw Over-the-Rhine, he immediately smelled potential.

“My wife thought I was nuts, and so did other people,” he said.

According to Wright, it was next to impossible to find anyone to invest in a gourmet hot dog restaurant in Over-the-Rhine at that time. 

“After a few meetings, 3CDC decided to help us open this restaurant,” he said, referring to Senate. “We knew how big of a risk it was.”

Once again, Wright's trust in himself paid off. Senate was an instant hit, opening to throngs of customers in February 2010. Abigail Street, Wright’s second restaurant, opened in November 2011. 

He will soon get his "barbecue on" for his third act. Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ, Wright's upcoming restaurant in Over-the-Rhine, is expected to open in late summer or early fall.

Food and cooking philosophy

Wright subscribes to the adage, "what grows together goes together."

“If you’re doing a rabbit dish, ask yourself, what do rabbits eat? Why not pair carrots and peas with rabbit?  Observe nature," he said.

One of the most popular dishes at Abigail Street has just 3 ingredients: House-made ricotta, local honey and grilled bread.

“I’m a rustic guy, I like things that are really plain and simple," he said. “It’s our job as chefs to stay current, to know what the trends are in other places, and sometimes, create the trends. Try to eat absolutely everything you can, and form your own opinion.”

Essential ingredients & tools

Wright’s kitchen must-haves include:

  • Spoon. Every single cook in Wright’s kitchen must have a spoon in his or her pocket. He wants them to taste their food.
  • Sharp chef’s knife. Wright treasures the Japanese chef’s knife his wife gave him when they got married. 
  • Fish spatula
  • Sriracha. This is such a crucial ingredient in his kitchen that Wright confesses to stashing away cases of it.
  • Thyme. “This is by far, my favorite herb,” Wright said. “We probably use more
    • thyme than any other restaurant in the city.”
    • Corn. It ranks as Wright’s all-time favorite ingredient. “I love sweet corn fresh off the husk."
    • Spices. He’s a fan of spice blends like ras-el-hanout and baharat.
    • 5-day a week operation. This was something he longed for as a young cook. Now that he’s the boss, it’s become his policy.  “All the cooks need the time to get away, and decompress,” Wright said. “They need two days off in a row to do that, and have a personal life outside of work.”

    While not strictly an essential kitchen item, Wright gushes over “anything barbecue.” He's excited about transitioning to the role of pit master at his third restaurant. 

    “It’s all about controlling smoke, temperature and time. It sounds simple but there’s a lot that goes into it,” he said.   

    Inspirations

    Michelin-starred celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White , stirred Wright's culinary aspirations. 

    “His first book made me want to be a chef. He had this edge to him. He was the first rock star chef, and I liked his swagger,” Wright said.  

    Although Wright has not worked in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, he has a high regard for the late chef. Trotter’s series of cookbooks, ranging from seafood, to meat and game, to vegetables, made a big impression on Wright. 

    “The books were very technical and completely usable. There was nobody who was a cook in the 90s in Chicago, who did not look up to him.”

    Wolfgang Puck’s passion for the restaurant business inspires Wright. When Wright and his wife, Lana, had dinner at Puck’s restaurant in Los Angeles recently, he was struck by Puck's presence. 

    “He was working the dining room, and came over to say ‘hello’ to us,” Wright said. “He could have retired 10 times over by now, but he does it because he loves it.”

    Wright looks up to Danny Meyer for his views on hospitality. He admires how Meyer runs his restaurants, keeps the talent around him, and continues to build his brand.

    Favorite meal to cook for family: Carne Asada Tacos

    Wright doesn't fire up the stove much at home; his wife does. 

    "Lana's probably one of the best cooks I've ever met," Wright said. When he does cook, he enjoys serving up Mexican food for the family.

    Ingredients

    • 2 pounds of Flap Meat or Skirt Steak (fat trimmed)
    • 2 medium yellow onions
    • 1 bunch of cilantro
    • 6 fresh limes
    • 1/4 c. white vinegar
    • 1/2 c olive oil
    • 1 jalapeno pepper sliced
    • 1t. toasted ground cumin
    • 1t. hot smoked Spanish paprika
    • 1/2 t. sugar
    • salt to taste ( preferably Kosher)
    • 2 c. crumbled cotija cheese
    • 12-15 Tortillas (Recipe for Fresh Tortillas follows)

    Instructions

    1. Slice one yellow onion.
    2. In a non-reactive mixing bowl add meat, sliced onion, jalapeno,  toasted cumin, paprika, sugar, a pinch of salt oil & vinegar.
    3. Slice two limes, squeeze the juice directly in to the bowl marinade. Refrigerate 1-3 hours.
    4. After 1-3 hours remove from fridge.
    5. Preheat grill on high.
    6. Mince remaining onion, cut limes into quarters and rough chop cilantro. Set aside until later.
    7. Once the Grill is hot, remove the steak from the marinade and place the steaks on the grill, Season with a pinch of salt.
    8. Because the steak is so thin it will cook fairly fast.
    9. Grill for approximately 2-3 minutes per side of steak. (Add an additional minute per side if you want it a little more well done)
    10. Once it is cooked to your liking, remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes before slicing.
    11. Always slice against the grain, meaning cut in the opposite direction of the muscle strands.

    To serve: Place sliced steak on a warm tortilla, top each taco with a generous amount of chopped cilantro, minced onion, and crumbled cotija cheese. Finally, squeeze a fresh lime  wedge over the top and enjoy.

    Ingredients for homemade tortillas

    • 2c. masa harina
    • 1c. water
    • 1 t. salt
    • 1 T. melted butter

    Instructions

    1. Mix ingredients until blended and refrigerate for 1 hour. 
    2. After an hour divide the mix into 12-15 small balls.
    3. Next you will need a tortilla press or a really flat pot and two thin pieces of plastic (recycled shopping bags or wax paper work best).
    4. Place one piece of plastic down and top with the Masa ball, then cover with the additional piece of plastic.
    5. Press down firmly with the press or smash with a large pot.
    6. Remove flattened tortilla from the plastic and repeat. Heat a cast iron pan over medium heat.
    7. Once hot, add one tortilla at a time.
    8. Heat approximately 30-45 seconds on each side of the tortilla.
    9. Once cooked, stack them and wrap in wax paper until ready to eat. These are best served immediately.

    Mark your Calendar:

    If you've always wanted to take a piece of Senate home--and not in a doggy bag--you soon can. The Senate cookbook will roll out on June 4, at the Street & Savory Book Release Party.  The party will start at Senate at 6:30 p.m. After that, the book will be available at Joseph-Beth Booksellers , and on the Senate website .

    Grace Yek is a faculty member

  • at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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