In the kitchen with Julie Francis: Nectar owner-chef adds simiplicity, spice to Cincinnati dining

MT. LOOKOUT - Editor's Note: "In the Kitchen with" is a new column spotlighting chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area.  Each week, 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.  

Julie Francis

The chef and owner of Nectar Restaurant began her culinary journey while pursuing a degree in photography at the University of Arizona. Francis was waiting tables when she got the chance to fill a position in the kitchen. 

That job changed her life.

With her culinary passion on the boil, Francis worked her way through some of the finest dining establishments in the Southwest. She embraced the region's global cooking styles and the philosophy of buying local,  sustainably raised foods.

Francis longed to bring her brand of cooking to her hometown, Cincinnati.

"I wanted to bring something here that didn't exist," she recalled. 

In 2001, Francis opened Aioli Bistro in downtown Cincinnati, quickly earning praise from the food community. She relocated to Mt. Lookout in 2006, renaming her restaurant Nectar. 

"My goal is to have a small neighborhood, chef-owned restaurant, and to use as many seasonal and local products in the menu as possible," Francis said.

Food and cooking philosophy

"I try and source locally as much as possible, for a number of reasons.  It helps the local economy, the ingredients are fresher, less processed, and more seasonal," Francis said.  She tries to make everything from scratch and avoids buying any premade products.

"All the meats I buy at the restaurant are raised by people I know. I don't buy any factory-farmed meats," Francis explained.  "Seasonality is the first rule - what's available and freshest now is just going to be more delicious.  I try to make responsible choices with what I buy."

Essential ingredients & tools

Francis described herself as "pretty low maintenance and low tech." However, she is high on fresh and quality ingredients. Her "must-haves" include:

  • A really sharp knife
  • Good stainless steel pans
  • Good Spanish extra virgin olive oil
  • Sherry vinegar (Francis's favorite vinegar)
  • Fleur de sel (hand-harvested sea salt)
  • Turmeric
  • Mediterranean spices
  • Lots of fresh herbs

Inspirations

"All women chefs inspire me, even if their style of food is not something I would naturally prefer," said Francis.  

She noted the imbalance of female chefs in the restaurant industry. 

"One person I really admire whom I met in Santa Fe is Deborah Madison. She's written a number of vegetarian cookbooks, and helped to get the Santa Fe farmers market going," Francis said.

Another chef Francis appreciates is Gabrielle Hamilton,  the chef and owner of Prune Restaurant in New York City. 

"I love reading her books, and her sense of humor is just great.  I've never eaten her food, but I think I know what her restaurant would be like just from reading her books," Francis said.  "I identify with her because she did not set out to be a chef, but through a confluence of events, it just happened."

Favorite meal to cook at home: Fish filet with achiote

Francis is a health-conscious eater.

"We don't really eat meat that often at home. If we have any kind of protein, it's usually fish," she said. "This recipe uses achiote paste, something I used in Santa Fe, which gives the fish a nice crust  and pretty color."

Ingredients:

10-12 oz. fresh Walleye Pike filet, skin and pin bones removed 
3 oz. achiote paste*
1/2 cup grape seed oil plus 2 T
1 cup cooked black beans
1 cup cooked golden quinoa
2 T sherry vinegar
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup daikon radish, grated
1/2 cup carrot, grated
1/2 cup cabbage, grated
1 jalapeno sliced thinly in rounds
1/4 cup cilantro sprigs
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. In a food processor, combine achiote paste and grape seed oil to make a thick puree. 
  2. Brush both sides of fish with paste.
  3. Heat skillet to medium high, so that oil is gently smoking.
  4. Season fish and sear in grape seed oil for approximately 3 minutes per side, until just cooked through.
  5. Serve fish on black bean and quinoa salad with pickled vegetables on top of fish.
  6. Garnish with cilantro sprigs. 

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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