BLUE ASH, Ohio - Josh House can now look back and laugh at the time he sliced his thumb, and then tried to hide it from his cooking instructor. House had just started culinary school, and was sharpening his knife on a steel, when his wayward thumb got in the way of the implements.
“The chef instructor started talking right about when I sliced myself. So I tucked my thumb in my hand and squeezed as hard as I could,” he recounted.
House was all thumbs until the instructor finished talking--half an hour later. He then went about cleaning his wound stealthily, but not so stealthily as to escape the patrolling eyes of his instructor.
"He came over to look at me and shook his head. I’ll never forget that."
House has come a long way since then. Today, he is the General Manager and Executive Chef of Parkers Blue Ash Tavern. Born and raised in Miamisburg, Ohio, he first stepped foot in the kitchen when he was 15.
"I always wanted to work at Pappas' Pizza Palace because we'd go there after baseball one night a week," he recalled. He got a job as a pizza cook there, and immediately felt at home.
When it was time to go to college, House headed to Eastern Kentucky University to pursue a business degree.
"I went to business school because that’s what people did. I didn’t really have any reason to do it," he said.
Before too long, House switched schools and pursued a criminal justice degree at the University of Cincinnati. While there, House worked at Max & Erma's--first as a grill cook, and then all other positions in the kitchen, including that of supervisor.
Feeling more certain about what he wanted to do, he enrolled himself in culinary school. It was at Cincinnati State where he experienced the embarrassing episode of his bleeding thumb.
He moved on to Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville to continue his culinary education. His persistence paid off. House finally got his degree, and in a field he was genuinely excited about.
House entered the world of fine dining when he worked in the banquet department at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville. He immersed himself in high-end cooking, and high volume production, especially when the Kentucky Derby rolled around.
He moved on to Kai, a Forbes five-star restaurant at the Sheraton Wildhorse Pass Resort and Spa in Phoenix. He returned to the Tri-State to take the job of Executive Chef at the Cincinnati Marriott Northeast, before joining Parkers Blue Ash Tavern.
For House, finding his dream career was a process.
"It took four colleges and five years, but that was the path I needed to go. A lot of people say you don’t choose the profession, the profession chooses you."
Parkers Blue Ash Tavern General Manager and Executive Chef Josh House poses for a photo in the Lexington room at the restaurant. (Photo by Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO)
Food and cooking philosophy
"If you’re not willing to go over and wash dishes, I don't want you. If you're not willing to do a job that’s not glamorous, then your thoughts on food are never going to be important, because no one's going to respect you."
In short, being a chef is more than just cooking.
"There’s a lot more to being a chef than writing stuff on a menu," he said. "If you want to be a chef, you have to understand what's going on in the business. If you don’t understand the business, and are not willing to learn, someone else will get the job even though their menu may not be as cool as yours."
House has evolved, and has a clear view of what's important.
"Get the best ingredients you possibly can, keep it simple, and do things right. It's hard to properly execute everything consistently. It's harder than going on the cutting edge and coming up with something crazy."
There was a time when House too, was smitten by the cutting edge.
"Before, it was about how far you can take the food, and still have people want to eat it," he said.
He gave the simple example of peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In his younger days, he might have been tempted to transform peanut butter into a powder form, turn grape juice into gelée spheres, and then serve them with a piece of toast.
"But now I’d rather just have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," he said. "Let's instead use fresh peanut butter, fresh jelly and bread, and make the sandwich correctly. That would be more impressive than making all that crazy stuff and saying 'that's my version of peanut butter and jelly," House added.
In the early years, House viewed food as an art form, but that has changed.
"We’re focusing so much on making art out of food, we’re not focusing enough on the craft of cooking," he said. "Cooking is more of a craft than an art. It’s technical."
House believes the dining community is returning to the simple things. He thinks the recent recession has turned the appetite for $300 dinners.
"Many chefs are opening their own spots, and serving the best food they can. They're not painting plates and putting dots on stuff," House added.
Josh House's essential ingredients & tools
- Sharp chef’s knife. House's go-to is the Masahiro carbon steel 9.75 inch knife. "As a professional chef, you have your own knives. It's your baby, and you keep them in your box under lock and key."
- Heavy bottomed pots and pans. House refuses to buy any pots and pans without first personally checking the quality. As he puts it simply, "If you get cheap stuff, you get poor results."
- Robot Coupe food processor
- Vitamix blender
- Salt and pepper. House uses Maldon sea salt for finishing, and Diamond Crystal kosher salt for everything else. He also sometimes smokes the large-flaked sea salt to enhance the flavor.
- Fresh ingredients. The restaurant recently added a set of planters around the patio, which has since become a source of fresh herbs like parsley, Thai basil, and thyme.
- Pork. Hands down, this is House's favorite meat. He's particularly fond of smoking and making barbecue with pork butt and ribs. "I prefer St. Louis ribs to back ribs," he noted. House is no stranger to snout-to-tail cooking, and has used the head to make terrines.
When House opened the pages of "The French Laundry" cookbook, his view of the culinary world also opened up. His admiration for Thomas Keller was deep and immediate.
"He uses pristine ingredients and makes beautiful food," House said. "He has his own garden, and people bring live rabbits to his back door."
House is inspired by the brilliance and humility in Keller.
"He's one of the most influential chefs, and he sweeps the floor and washes dishes.”
While Keller relentlessly pursues perfection, House acknowledges his pursuit is of a different kind: consistency in quality, and financial results.
David Chang has the "cool factor" that gets House's attention.
"He's a playful guy, with a take it or leave it attitude," he noted.
Sean Brock's simplistic yet masterful blending of modern and traditional cooking techniques captivates House.
"He has such respect for where the food comes from," House said. "Besides, he likes to drink Bourbon, and so do I," he laughed.
When House was a culinary student, he disliked reading--until he picked up Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." Life in the kitchen all of a sudden clicked.
"It was a huge moment for me," House recalled.
He was just finding his way in the restaurant world, and the book put things in perspective for him.
"To see that it was okay to be passionate about your work, and be working with a bunch of people with mismatched clothes, tattoos and earrings, and swinging heavy knives and playing with fire. This is cool. It’s a different culture, and this is what I'm drawn to," House said.
The book got House hooked on reading. It's now become something he looks forward to doing in his spare time.
Favorite meal to cook at home: Roasted Pork Loin With Braised Greens and Smoked Cheddar Grits
House and his wife cook a lot at home. House loves the food in Charleston, S.C., and takes his family there every year. Not surprisingly, their home meals have a certain southern character.
Roasted Pork Loin
- 5 lb – Pork Loin, boneless
- 2 Tbl – Salt
- 2 Tsp – Pepper
- 1 Tbl – Bacon Fat
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Rub pork loin with oil or bacon fat and season on all sides on with salt and pepper.
- Place a large saute pan on stove and add bacon fat and turn on medium high heat.
- Place pork loin fat side down in pan to start and rotate on all sides to sear evenly.
- Remove seared pork and place fat side up on a small sheet tray.
- Roast for 35 – 50 minutes until it reaches and internal temperature of 135 degrees.
- Remove from oven and allow the pork loin to rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
Smoked Cheddar Grits
- 2 Cups - Chicken Stock
- 2 Cups – Whole Milk
- 1 Cup – Weisenberger Grits
- ½ Cup – Smoked Cheddar Cheese, shredded
- To taste – Tabasco
- To taste – Salt and Pepper
- Heat chicken stock and milk in heavy bottom pot.
- When boiling add grits and turn to medium heat.
- Allow grits to cook for 20 – 25 minutes until soft.
- Add cheddar cheddar and mix to incorporate.
- Season with Tabasco, salt and pepper to taste.
- Reserve warm until ready to serve, adjust consistency with warm milk.
- 1 ea – Onion, medium dice
- 4 ea – Garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ Cup – Bacon Fat
- ¼ Cup – Ham or Bacon, medium dice
- 2 Cup – Chicken Stock
- 3 bunches – Greens (collard/mustard/kale) cleaned, rinsed, chopped 1”x1”
- ¼ Cup – Apple Cider Vinegar
- To taste – Salt and Pepper
- Place onion, garlic, bacon fat and ham or bacon in pot over medium heat.
- Allow to sweat slowly for 10 minutes.
- Begin to add in greens and sweat for another 10 minutes until all greens are in the pot.
- Add in chicken stock and vinegar and turn down to simmer
- Allow to cook for 45 – 60 minutes until tender.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Reserve warm until needed.