CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly 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.
Food would not dare be anything but perfect when Jeremy Lieb is around. It transforms from ordinary to amazing each and every time.
Lieb has more than 20 years of preparing food at its highest level under his belt--or chef's apron. He has steel-like discipline soldered onto his bones, the passion to work 100-hour work weeks, and an unflagging obsession with food. His stamina and talents have added up to a great gig: the corporate chef for the Boca Restaurant Group and the executive chef at Boca.
Lieb was born in Las Vegas and spent most of his childhood in Milwaukee. When he was 14, his curiosity for food turned into a love affair--after he ate an artichoke.
"My grandfather was having his 80th birthday party at a restaurant," Lieb said. "They made this artichoke dish. I can't even tell you what it was. But, wow, I remember eating it and loving it. And I wanted more."
As a senior in high school, Lieb worked at Grenadiers, a top-rated restaurant in Milwaukee.
"I washed pots, shucked oysters, and diced shallots. Once I proved myself, they put me on the line," Lieb said. "I remember the first night on the line, grabbing pans without towels, burning my hands, and leaving the place almost in tears."
A couple of years, and a culinary degree from Milwaukee Area Technical College later, Lieb set his sights on the Maisonette in Cincinnati. His parents had moved to Ohio and frequently told him about the Mobil five-star rated restaurant.
"I called Georges Haidon for a job once a week for six months. Then one day, he said 'be here tomorrow at 3 p.m.,'" Lieb said.
When Jean-Robert de Cavel took over the Maisonette, Lieb gained a new mentor and friend.
"He took me under his wing and made sure I learned everything."
When Lieb wanted to experience France, de Cavel placed him with the late Bernard Loiseau at La Côte d’Or restaurant in Saulieu. Lieb lived above the kitchen and worked 17 hours every day, with Sunday mornings off.
"It was a hard life, but it definitely made me a better cook," Lieb said. "Nothing was easy. We got our fish every day from Brittany, so we would clean and scale it. The birds--quail, partridge, pheasant and duck--came with their feathers, and the snails would still be alive in their crates. The foie gras would still be warm when it came."
After his time in France, Lieb continued his work at best-in-class restaurants, including Daniel and Cafe Boulud (both in New York), Le Cirque (Las Vegas), and Trois (Atlanta).
When Jeff Ruby made Lieb an offer he couldn’t refuse, Lieb returned to Cincinnati as corporate chef for Jeff Ruby's restaurants. Lieb then went on to work at Boca in Oakley, and together with the team at Boca Restaurant Group, transitioned Boca to its current downtown location.
“When I’m in the kitchen, I lose sense of time. I have the greatest job in the world.”
Food and cooking philosophy
"I keep it simple, honest and do it right. If you have a halibut, and you season it right, and then cook it properly, it's going to be amazing," Lieb said. "It's just honest food. Anybody can do it."
"For example, the lumache con salsiccia dish we have here. It really has only a few key components: porcini, sausage, pasta and butter," Lieb explained. "If you don't execute every step properly, it's ordinary. But if you respect the technique, and do it properly, then it's going to be amazing."
"Know your mother sauces, and how to create from them," Lieb added. "I cook in ratios. For example, the ratio to make a pickle is one part sugar, one part vinegar, and one part water."
"I feel nowadays, a lot of chefs open up a cookbook, and then open up a restaurant. I'm a good chef not because I opened up a cookbook, but because of the mistakes everybody made--including myself--before me."
"What I do with food is take the classics, make them more contemporary, and build on them," Lieb said. "Respect the past, and move into the future."
Essential ingredients & tools
Lieb's kitchen must-haves include:
- A sharp knife
- A flat pan
- Carrots, onion, celery
According to Lieb, he can do "many, many things" with the foundational ingredients of carrots, onion, celery, potatoes and garlic.
The old culinary masters inspire Lieb.
"I would not be where I am today without chefs like Georges Haidon,
Jean-Robert, Daniel Bouloud, Alex Lee, and Jean François Bruel. They were big influences in my life," Lieb said.
Lieb seems to enter into his own realm of brilliance from the very act of cooking: "When I'm cooking, I feel inspired. I can solve any problem."
Favorite meal to cook for family: Spinach ravioli
Once or twice a month, Lieb makes ravioli at home.
"My kids weigh out the ingredients and get the eggs ready," Lieb said. When the dough is ready, the children feed it through a hand-cranked pasta machine.
"It's a simple recipe, and it's fun."
- 12 oz semolina
- 18 oz OO flour
- 8 whole eggs
- 4 yolks
- 2 tbs Olive oil
- Water as needed
- 16 oz Ricotta cheese
- 1 cup grated Parmesan Cheese
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 pinch chili flakes
- 1 pound spinach
- 1 bunch basil chopped
- 2 tbs Olive oil
- Combine Semolina and OO flour in mixer with paddle attachment
- Add in whole eggs, yolks and oil.
- Add water as needed to moisten dough.
- Allow to rest 1 hour.
- Sauté spinach with garlic and chili flakes until completely wilted.
- Season the spinach with salt and pepper and drain of any water.
- Chop the spinach and allow it to cool.
- In a large bowl combine ricotta, Parmesan and basil.
- Add the cooled spinach to the cheese and mix thoroughly.
- Taste the filling and adjust with salt and pepper if needed.
- Roll out thin sheets of pasta.
- Place filling inside and seal with egg wash.
- Cut into any desired shape.
- Cook in salted boiling water for 1.5 minutes
(Photos of Boca Restaurant by G. Yek)
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek .