CINCINNATI -- With his pop-up restaurant, Please, Ryan Santos made a name for himself in Cincinnati.
Please has been unique in the Cincinnati area: a nomadic farm-to-table restaurant run by a chef who has traveled extensively, cooking in three Michelin-starred restaurants in northern Europe, with Chef John Shields in Chilhowie, Virginia, even on a heavy-metal-themed food truck in Los Angeles.
“I went through a phase of being nomadic and using the advantage of being a cook and being able to go anywhere,” said Santos, who was raised in Canal Fulton near Akron and received a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Cincinnati.
As a migratory chef, he said, “You could just seasonally help (in different restaurants) and … see new kitchens and have new experiences and also get to travel, which was important to me.”
Now Please is about to settle into its own nest. Thanks to 306 people contributing more than $38,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, the chef was able to secure an address in Over-the-Rhine (at 14th and Clay), and Santos said he expects to open in mid- to late summer when renovation and kitchen construction are complete. This month he has two more dinner dates (June 11 and 26) at Carriage House Farm, and then, he said, the pop-up will be wrapped up.
Given Santos’ nomadism, it may seem like a paradox that local sourcing is what Please is all about. He has ventured far to internalize the values of cooking what grows close by, in particular in high-end Scandinavian cuisine, which has been famous in recent years for chefs who forage and remain fiercely local, wherever they may be.
Recently, Santos, who has never attended a culinary school, spent a month in the kitchen of Copenhagen’s Relae, which in 2013 became the first-ever Michelin-starred certified-organic restaurant.
Like Santos, the chefs at Relae, “are very vegetable focused.
“They’re inspired by the seasons and what the farmers are bringing in,” Santos said.
“The restaurant overlooks (the Baltic Sea) and everything (served) comes from the island. I spent three months working there. And that was super fun and super cool,” Santos said. “It's an amazing life that they (Kadeau’s chefs) lead. It's kind of hard work and Michelin-starred and beach life at the same time."
A previous stint in Europe in 2013 had Santos cooking in the kitchen of In De Wulf on the border of Belgium and France. Again, Michelin-starred.
“I had kind of a rough experience there, to be honest, but it was something I got a lot from,” Santos said.
It was a high-stress environment, he added, with “lots of yelling” and 18-hour workdays.
He described it as “weird and kind of crazy and stressful, but it was also exciting and invigorating.”
“It was inspiring and exhausting to see what it takes to cook at the top levels in Europe,” Santos said.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati over the past five years Santos has been making and deepening connections with local farmers. He buys regularly from Carriage House Farms in North Bend, Dark Wood Farm in Kentucky, Wind Dance Farm near Dillsboro, Indiana, and the Ohio Valley Food Connection.
“I stop in the farmers markets every week and have conversations with (farmers) or we email or text, just saying, ‘This looks really great this week,’ or ‘What do you have that you think would be good for us?’” Santos said. “It’s not always us guiding the conversation. Sometimes the farmers say, ‘We didn’t expect strawberries to be this great this season, and all of a sudden we have 40 pounds of them, can you take them?’
“It’s a continual dialogue between all the individual farmers on what they’re doing — and using that as the baseline for the dishes (at Please).”
Instead of a guest going to a restaurant and worrying about what is the best dish to order, Santos said, “we’re taking that out.”
“(We’re) saying, ‘Here are the best ingredients this week we’re getting from local farmers and we’re going make a whole menu around it,’” Santos explained. “We keep it simple and also focus on creativity.”
Richard Stewart, manager of Carriage House Farm, said he met Santos in 2012 at the Northside Farmers Market. They became friends, and on a freezing November evening Santos cooked Carriage House's first on-farm dinner in what became a successful series for the farm.
"Everybody couldn't stop talking about it," Stewart said.
The following summer, Santos cooked 24 dinners at the farm, often reaching out to other chefs to participate.
"He’s had a really great history of doing dinners with multiple producers and chefs. It’s been a really diverse crowd and I think everybody has fun," Stewart said. "He's done this amazing job of reaching out to the community. ... What we're seeing now is wonderful camaraderie within the community — Ryan has done a tremendous job (of bringing people together)."
Stewart pointed out that Santos stands out in the culinary scene for his prix-fixe menus.
"There may be two chefs (in the Cincinnati area) that were doing a pre-fixe courses, Ryan and chef Mark Bodenstein. Those were the only two that were really taking that to the extreme, to what you would see in Europe — these guys were doing cutting-edge stuff four or five years ago," Stewart said.
Cutting edge includes a return to essentials, and Santos grows some of his own food for the restaurant, having taken over a privately owned formerly vacant lot on Walnut Street between 14th and 15th, where he said he has two dozen raised beds and grows chives and herbs, tomatoes and peppers. In exchange for the growing space, he keeps the lot looking nice and provides some meals at Please.
As he prepares to open his own kitchen, Santos looks back to Relae not just for its success in making vegetables central on the menu (without being vegetarian) but in their simple presentation.
With Please in its permanent location, Santos said he is trying to strike a balance between doing fine dining “without all the frills and unnecessary pretense” and keeping things affordable with a relaxed, comfortable environment while still taking food seriously.
“(But) not coming across that way. No tablecloths. Trying to keep it personal and experience-based rather than saying, ‘This is a fancy restaurant because we have a really expensive chandelier or our tablecloths are perfectly pressed,’” Santos said. “It’s more about, like, we (will) take the money and try and pay our people really well and spend more money on the ingredients than on the pomp of fine dining.”