Chef, proprietor of Nectar in Mt. Lookout combines fine-arts perspective with farm-to-table cooking

CINCINNATI -- A robust community is not made up of clones. It has genetic diversity, people who bring different histories to the table.

Similarly, one of the reasons Cincinnati’s farm-to-table scene has so much vitality isn’t simply that the number of chefs, farmers and diners has grown exponentially in the past four to five years, but that the ones who are here are coming from all over the map, literally and figuratively.

In farm-to-table coverage, we have profiled chefs who brought a deep commitment to local, family traditions in food and farming, such as Todd Hudson of Wildflower Café in Mason. One of the most creative chefs on the scene, Fairfield-raised Hudson told WCPO he has never been on an airplane. Meanwhile, Jose Salazar comes from New York, where he first worked in kitchens. And Vitor Abreu of Vitor’s Bistro in Cheviot was born in the Azores islands of Portugal.

One of the early shapers of the farm-to-table scene in Cincinnati brings a fine-arts perspective to cooking. Julie Francis, whose early stake in farm-to-table makes her a leader in the Cincinnati culinary world, brings a fine-arts background as well as international perspective to her kitchen. The chef/proprietor of Nectar on Mt. Lookout Square, Francis opened her first Cincinnati establishment in 2000.

Serving food Thursdays through Sundays, Nectar has an eclectic menu based on local ingredients, with some dishes influenced by the cooking of New Mexico and Asia. In 2014, Joanne Drilling of Cincinnati Magazine described Francis this way: “Julie Francis – patron saint of farm-to-table cooking long before it was cool – is one of the most creative chefs in the city.”

Francis said her interest in food was encouraged by her father, who was a medical doctor in the Air Force. In the early 1960s, Francis said, he was stationed in Tripoli, Libya, which had many Italian restaurants, where he and Francis’ mother loved to eat and enjoy Italian wine. They brought an interest in fine wine and food home to Cincinnati, where it became part of Francis’ upbringing – visiting vineyards, growing their own grapes and experimenting with making wine.

Francis was raised here, then studied fine-art photography at the University of Arizona at Tucson. While in college, she began working in restaurants.

“I started out as a server and eventually made my way into the kitchen. I wasn’t really a front-of-the-house personality necessarily, but I did like working in restaurants,” she said. “I always had an interest in food.”

For over a decade she worked kitchens – some of them famous, like the Coyote Cafe – in the southwest, beginning in Denver, then Albuquerque and Santa Fe. She also worked for a time at the famed Montrachet French restaurant in New York.

It was in New Mexico, she said, that she learned to cook using local ingredients, something that was an integral aspect of cooking in that area.

“In Santa Fe there was a wonderful farmers market, and farmers would come to the restaurant where I worked. We foraged mushrooms by the restaurant. We had growers who were doing different dried beans, all kinds of things, chilis,” Francis said. “As a chef, to me, it’s the most interesting way to work, because you’re really making a connection to the season and what’s being grown and the flavors of that time of year and expressing that in a dish is what I think is interesting about cooking.”

She also saw parallels between art and cooking.

“Cooking has technique that needs to be learned,” she said, “just like different forms of art do – in terms of how to properly cook – but all your senses are involved in cooking, which could be also used in art. And visual (experience) is a big component of food.”

Whereas many of the newest generation of farm-to-table chefs in Cincinnati were inspired to be part of a burgeoning scene, Francis was attracted to starting a restaurant here because the scene did not yet exist.

“When I opened my first restaurant in 2001, there were not a lot of chef-owned-and-operated restaurants here in Cincinnati – of the kind I was thinking of,” she said. “And I felt that the food was very continental and not as exciting as the food I had seen out west, so I thought that I could bring that here.”

She opened Aioli at Seventh and Elm in 2001. But she may have been too far ahead of the curve; 9/11 happened, and, she said, “downtown was just really not progressing.”

“It’s obviously seeing a boom right now, but (in 2001) there were a lot of things that changed the way things were happening downtown, and I was open for lunch – lunch business was not great,” Francis remembered.

Aioli closed in 2005 and Francis moved to Mt. Lookout Square in 2006, reopening as Nectar. She said she wanted to be in a location that was neighborhood-based and she has been there ever since, cooking four days a week and teaching cooking classes once a week.

Francis has a direct, almost taciturn manner. She speaks crisply and eloquently but she gives the impression she’s not a big talker. She has her story; other chefs have theirs. But when we start discussing her menus, the fundamental similarities with her farm-to-table cohorts is plain: fresh and local, with a dash of fresh and local.

“It’s a small menu. We try and keep things simple and very fresh and cook in the moment with what’s available. I print the menus in-house so I have the option of switching out the ingredients a lot. And I do that as things come and go with the seasons,” she said. “Like most chefs and restaurants, you try and do a fall menu, a winter menu a spring menu and summer – and even do early summer, mid-summer and late summer because you’re going to have different, very different, things happening during that time. Theoretically you could change your menu weekly.

“It’s about wanting to showcase what is at the peak of freshness … and to do something interesting with the products I’m able to get.”

Francis struck another note in common with farm-to-table chefs of the area. Most I have spoken with mention personal relationships with their farmers – as well as customers – as one of the great pleasures of their job.

Francis, likewise, said her favorite things about her work are “getting to know (farmers and artisans) and what they do, and getting to connect with customers and get their feedback.”

Among the providers she mentioned: Blue Oven Bakery, My Artisano cheeses, Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese, Sallie Ransohoff Kreines, Farm Beach Bethel, Marksbury Farm, Grassroots Farm, Hill Farm, Carriage House Farm and Snowville Creamery.

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