Cincinnati food leaves strong impressions on culinary notables

Posted at 9:00 AM, Sep 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-25 09:00:50-04

Many Cincinnatians are so over the city's reputation as  "flyover country" when it comes to its culinary offerings.

That's because they see the colossal culinary talent rocking the food scene every day. Cincinnati is home to chef superstars like 2016 James Beard semifinalist Jose Salazar, Food & Wine magazine's 2012 best new chef, Dan Wright, and the ever-brilliant French chef Jean-Robert de Cavel.

Those who have been to Cincinnati in recent years know that the city is on the fast track to becoming the "next big food city." Just ask native Keith Pandolfi, senior features editor at Serious Eats and a former senior editor at Saveur. And when Andrew Knowlton, deputy editor of Bon Appétit, was asked what he thought were emerging food meccas, he pointed straight at Cincinnati.

The Queen City once again is hosting national authorities of food and drink for the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic. Here are a few out-of-town culinary dignitaries’ impressions of Cincinnati cuisine.

Robert Simonson, The New York Times

Journalist, author and cocktail maven Robert Simonson goes straight to Cincinnati-style chili.

Robert Simonson of The New York Times. (Provided by Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic)

"I’ve always been a chili fan, and I learned of the city’s peculiar way with the dish about a decade ago," he said. "Since then, I’ve made the dish several times at home and, when passing through the Cincinnati airport, always make sure to pick up a few cans of Gold Star or Skyline."

Simonson is a big advocate of provincial culinary specialties. "I am very much looking forward to trying Cincinnati chili in its hometown and sampling the various purveyors," he said.

As a cocktail writer with a penchant for bars with history, Simonson also has his sights set on visiting Cincinnati's oldest tavern, Arnold's Bar & Grill.

David Tamarkin, Epicurious

Epicurious editor David Tamarkin grew up in Wyoming, a suburb of Cincinnati. Tamarkin left home in 1996 but visits family often even though he's now based in New York.

David Tamarkin of Epicurious. (Provided by Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic)

"There are a lot of foods I crave when I come home, but my biggest cravings are reserved for bakeries," he said, adding that he "would kill to have one of the cheese crowns from Wyoming Pastry Shop." Tamarkin admitted he didn't know cheese crowns were a regional thing until a few months ago, and that only makes him want one even more.

"I am equally obsessed with the cinnamon rolls from Busken — the behemoth square ones, not the wimpy round ones. If they're out of those cinnamon rolls (they often are by the time I get there), a doughnut works. In the fall I especially like a Halloween-themed doughnut," Tamarkin said.

"Because I'm basically a 10-year-old in an adult body -- when I'm in Cincinnati, at least."

Andy Ricker, Pok Pok Enterprises

Andy Ricker, a two-time James Beard Award winner and Anthony Bourdain's travel companion to Thailand, is the chef and owner of the acclaimed Pok Pok family of restaurants in New York, Portland and Los Angeles.

Andy Ricker. (Provided by Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic)

Ricker was on his way to Vermont in a "busted 1968 Plymouth Duster" 30 years ago when he stopped in Cincinnati to visit a friend.

"Skyline Chili is the first thing that comes to mind, and then Little Kings beer," he said. "My memories are White Castle, Little Kings beer, going to a pub … and playing some kind of mechanical baseball game. And I liked all of it."

Mike Randolph, Público, Randolfi's and Half & Half

Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Mike Randolph is the chef and owner of Público, Randolfi's and Half & Half. He's also a Cincinnati native.

"For so long, Cincinnati food to me meant the things I was familiar with -- LaRosa’s, Skyline, Aglamesis, Zip's, The Echo," he said. "When I was growing up in Pleasant Ridge, Pleasant Ridge Chili and Gas Light Cafe was the extent of the food there."

Randolph visited Cincinnati just several months ago, noting how much had changed on the culinary scene. "The coolest part about it is, the restaurants I see popping up by and large are chef-driven,” he said. “These places are all driven by the vision of my contemporaries, and I think that is a unique movement." 

According to Randolph, his wife "fell in love with" Sotto, and he finds Salazar OTR "amazing."

"I think people in Cincinnati have a healthy reverence for the food of their upbringing, but at the same time, they're also willing to expand their horizon and spend the night in Over-the-Rhine," he said.

Ned Elliott, Foreign and Domestic

Ned Elliott grew up in North Avondale. He left in 1994 and is now the chef and owner of Foreign and Domestic in Austin, Texas.

"When I think Cincinnati food, I immediately think Cincinnati-style chili and goetta," he said.

When Elliott was last in Cincinnati in June, he made his rounds in several restaurants, including Cheapside Cafe, Pleasantry and A Tavola. He said he appreciates that not every restaurant here has to have major public relations to succeed.

"It's like, ‘Hey, I'm doing what I do and I'm busy enough (to) where I can pay the bills and serve great food,’" he said.

Elliott admits to flirting with the idea of opening a Foreign and Domestic in Cincinnati: "It hasn't been a goal, but it's one of those things where you think, how awesome this would be?"

Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic 2016

Where: Yeatman’s Cove, 705 E. Pete Rose Way 
When: Friday-Sunday  
Price: $95-$395. 
Discount for Insiders: WCPO Insider has partnered with the Cincinnati Food+Wine Classic for an exclusive offer. Get $20 off your tickets to The Grill Invitational, Saturday Savor, Feast in the Park and Sunday Savor.

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.