In the kitchen with Joel Molloy: About food, Nicola's chef says 'do it better or leave it alone'

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.

Joel Molloy

"Always have respect for the food and ingredients. You do what you can to make it better, or you leave it alone, and let it showcase itself. Treat everything with integrity, and do everything to the best that you can."

When nine-year-old Joel Molloy stepped into the kitchen as his mother's assistant, he had the makings of a boy who would one day be chef. At 14, Molloy was already anchoring the entremet station at Nicola's Restaurant, kicking out side dishes for the main entrées. He got his start there as a prep cook, which is to say, he has peeled his share of carrots and potatoes.

Molloy's youthful appearance and laid back manner conceal the culinary maturity within. As the executive chef at Nicola's, his brand of cooking has consistently earned the restaurant near perfect rankings on many popular review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Born and raised in Oakley, Molloy remembers how he always liked helping his mother in the kitchen.

"My mom's family had a huge farm in Williamsburg, and we would take trips out there," he recalled. Cooking almost always meant a mass production.

"They had a big farmhouse, and they would cook dinner for just about the entire neighborhood," Molloy said. "The people from church and the neighbors would all come over."

Food that graced the dinner table came fresh from the family farm.

After high school, Molloy explored a different path, and studied art and design for a while at the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAPP).  He even interned with Lightborne, a design house in downtown Cincinnati.

"It was a really cool job. I loved the job but the sitting.... I couldn't stay seated in front of the computer," Molloy said.

It was around then that Molloy met Cristian Pietoso at Nicola's. Molloy quickly bonded with Pietoso, the restaurant owner's son, and credits Pietoso for introducing him to high end cooking.

"He bought me two cookbooks: Charlie Trotter's and The French Laundry. I immediately wanted to come up with my own dishes and Cristian would help me," Molloy said.

RELATED In the kitchen with Cristian Pietoso: Inspired by his mother, grandmother and extra virgin olive oil

When Pietoso asked Molloy to become his sous chef, Molloy readily returned to his first love: Cooking. Molloy eventually took over as chef de cuisine when Pietoso left to open Via Vite.

After a couple of years, Molloy threw down a challenge for himself: Work in the internationally revered restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago. Molloy found his way in the world-class kitchen, where he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the iconic chef, Grant Achatz.

"He's really quiet, but he's really big into being the best you can be. He stresses proper technique and speed," Molloy said. "He's demanding. Not much gets past him."

Molloy went on to work in other high end kitchens, including Trencherman in Chicago, and Orchids at Palm Court in Cincinnati. When Nicola Pietoso offered Molloy the executive chef position at his namesake restaurant, Molloy embraced the homecoming.

"This is a career, a passion, and a hobby. I like to eat food, and I just like to experience what food brings to people," Molloy said.

The dining room at Nicola's Restaurant.

Food and cooking philosophy

Molloy is fearless in his culinary approach.

"I've always been one with an open mind, to try all types of things. I like it when people challenge themselves to try things that they're not comfortable or familiar with," he said.

Molloy reaches into modern techniques to spruce up classic fare, such as the use of lemon foam--a type of airy sauce made with lemon vinaigrette whipped in a charged canister.

"The foam stays on the food, and does not slide off," he said.

Molloy has some advice for young cooks.

"Taste as much as you can, pick up as many things as you possibly can. Work hard."

Molloy's essential ingredients & tools:

  • Togiharu chef's knife
  • Metal spoon for cooking. Molloy picked up this practice while working in Chicago. "I have a spoon bain next to my station," he said.
  • Good sauté pans, especially copper ones. "My favorite is copper. It gets hot, and sears well."
  • Olive oil is Molloy's number one ingredient, simply because the kitchen uses so much of it. He sources olive oil from California as well as Italy. "We import from a private maker in Italy. He doesn't speak any English but somehow understands my order," Molloy chuckled.
  • Butter
  • Different types of vinegar. "I like to taste different vinegars, like champagne vinegar, and citron vinegar by Jean Marc. Vinegar adds a little life to dishes," Molloy said.
  • Genovese basil. "We give Sallie (Ransohoff) the basil seeds, and she grows them for us," Molloy said. Ransohoff, or simply, "Sallie," as she is commonly known in the chef circle, grows produce for a number of restaurants in the area.
  • Mixed produce flowers, such as arugula blossoms and broccoli flowers. Molloy likes the herbaceous note these flowers lend to the dishes.
  • Different types of salt, like smoked salt and sea salt. Molloy uses Morton's kosher salt for cooking, and Maldon sea salt for finishing.

Inspirations

Great chefs like Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller inspire Molloy.

"They made a name for themselves through hard work, and are passionate about being the best," he said. "They are willing to go above and beyond to care for their customers."

Molloy admires how these chefs convey emotion through food. For Molloy, inspiration for his next great dish can be as easy as taking a walk in the park.

"There's so much beauty in nature. I like to go on hikes. Just going through the woods, you see and think of different things," Molloy said. The peace he feels on these hikes purges the daily kitchen noise.

Molloy's early interest in art and design still brings him inspiration. He takes interest in architecture, and likes to look at lines and geometry.

"Sometimes I see some things that make me think about things, like plating design," he said.

Molloy likes to go out to eat too. It's his way of refilling his creative cup.

"I also like to travel and experience different cultures," Molloy added. He was quite smitten by barbecue chicken feet when he was in China. Locally, he loves eating at Pho Lang Thang.

RELATED Recipe for success: Three Cincinnati guys engineer their own Asian cuisine movement

Favorite meal to cook at home: Vegetable Pho (vegan)

Molloy's wife is a vegan. When he's at home, he'll cook and eat vegan fare. He offers a recipe for one of their favorite home-cooked meals.

Ingredients:

  • 16 oz vegetable broth
  • 1 white onion, charred
  • 1 large ginger, charred
  • 1 tbsp star anise
  • 1 tbsp fennel seed
  • 1 tbsp cardamom seeds
  • 3 cloves
  • 6 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2tbsp kosher salt

Instructions

Broth
1. Bring the onion and ginger to a boil and lower heat to a simmer for one hour.
2. Add your spices and dried shitakes and simmer for 2 hours.
3. Strain spices and vegetables.
4. Reserve hot.

Noodles and garnishes
1. Take Bành noodles, pour hot water over and let steep till tender.
2. Pick cilantro, Thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapeños.

Serve the broth with noodles and garnishes.

(Photos 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.

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