When you talk to Steven Shockley, chef de cuisine of The Anchor in Over-the-Rhine, you quickly pick up that he loves history.
He can tell you how the tomato made its way across the Atlantic from the Americas, hundreds of years ago, to become a staple of the Italian table. He also can tell you about the food pathways of early immigrants.
“I’m a history nerd,” he said.
His own history is interesting as well. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Shockley graduated from St. Xavier High School and went on to join Public Allies, a youth leadership and apprenticeship program that services nonprofit organizations. While in the program, Shockley worked at the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.
After a year, Shockley moved to Chicago to pursue a degree in theater at Columbia College. He said he and his friends were “super broke,” which prompted them to start a routine that would alter Shockley’s career path. They took turns cooking at each other’s houses to cut back on expenses. They enjoyed it so much, they decided to up the ante.
“We started inviting chefs from restaurants we couldn’t afford to go to to our little dinner parties,” Shockley said.
Eventually, a restaurant chef showed up. It was the chef of Marigold Maison, an award-winning fine-dining Indian restaurant.
Three weeks later, he got a call from that same chef to work for an absent cook. Shockley, who had not worked in a restaurant before, jumped at the chance. He pivoted away from college and hasn’t looked back since.
He went on to work at restaurants in Chicago and Cincinnati, including Jean-Robert de Cavel’s now shuttered Pho Paris, Chalk and Lavomatic. He worked as the chef at the Rookwood prior to joining the Anchor 10 months ago, moving up the ranks to become the chef de cuisine only five months later.
Recently, I caught up with Shockley to see how he puts his spin on an Italian classic, agnolotti (pronounced ah-neo-lotti; the "g" is silent). Agnolotti is ravioli’s lesser-known cousin. Both pasta varieties are filled, but ravioli is made with two sheets of pasta pressed together, while agnolotti is made with one sheet of pasta that’s folded over to contain the filling.
“Some iteration of this would be all over Italy in the summertime, when you’ve got the figs,” he said.
To my surprise, Shockley said the figs he would use for his dish had been harvested off an urban fig tree.
“There’s actually a fig tree in Northside on my walk to the bus stop,” he said.
When we stepped inside the kitchen, I saw that the mise en place (organization of equipment and ingredients) was done and a pot of water was simmering on the stove.
“This is lamb prosciutto,” he said, as he pointed to a small stack of thinly sliced cured meat on the cutting board. Shockley, who made the prosciutto with traditionally Indian spices like ajwain, cumin and fenugreek seed, had cured it for five weeks.
Don’t expect him to indulge, though: “I’m a vegetarian -- have been since I was 15,” he said.
Shockley then drew my attention to a handful of agnolotti and said, “The pasta is handmade.” He listed the ingredients in the agnolotti filling: ricotta cheese, crème fraiche and pickled shiso. Shiso, an herb from the mint family with leaves that can be green or purple-red, is widely used in Japanese cuisine.
The chef walked the agnolotti over to the stove and dropped them into a pot of boiling water.
“I cook it until it starts to float, then give it (another) 30 seconds,” he said. He recommends cooking the pasta only to an al dente stage (slightly firm) and advises against cooking stuffed pasta in water that’s at a rolling boil.
“You’re less likely to have an explosion,” he said, laughing.
With the pasta cooked, Shockley moved on to plating the dish. He grabbed a squeeze bottle of thickened ice wine vinegar that had been sweetened with honey. Then he made five dots on the plate with the vinegar and gently spread them with a mini offset spatula.
The rest of the components followed: first the agnolotti, then the fig halves, mint leaves and fennel fronds. Shockley then drizzled Cretan olive oil and finished with lemon zest.
The agnolotti was a complex yet comforting bundle. The ricotta cheese and crème fraiche rounded out the tangy and slightly peppery taste of the pickled shiso. The vinegar was a nice balance to the luxurious lamb prosciutto. The plate looked effortless and pretty.
Historian that he is, Shockley sees many common threads that run through the world's cuisines. It might explain the ease with which he pulls culinary influences from multiple cultures.
"When you can have that balance on one plate, you don't need to eat 12 courses," he said.
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.