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Nuvo chef's path to stardom started on streets

Posted at 12:00 PM, May 14, 2016

This is one in an occasional series of farm-to-table chef profiles.

COVINGTON, Ky. -- Mark Bodenstein started cooking at an Adams County diner as a teenager because he was couch surfing and needed a reliable way to eat.

But then, as with so many meaningful pursuits, what started as a necessity became an end in itself, ultimately leading to one of the more ambitious farm-to-table restaurants — not to mention careers — in the Cincinnati area.

Standing in the back patio of Nuvo At Greenup, his restaurant and budding urban farm in Covington, Bodenstein said he’d become homeless at the age of 16 in the wake of his parents’ divorce. He didn’t want to take sides, he said, so he ended up roaming the streets.

“That’s how I got into cooking — because it was a way to feed myself,” he said.

Some of that cooking, Bodenstein said, was here in Cincinnati, where his family had lived for the first part of his childhood before they moved to a 1,000-acre diversified farm in Adams County.

“Most of it was in a diner out in Adams County. I lived between friends. (When) their mom was like, ‘Hey, you know you’ve stayed here three days, time to move on,’ I’d go stay at another friend’s house,” he recalled. “Kind of did that for, like, six months. That’s when I took my first serious cooking job, or semi-serious.

“I was working hot lines and doing expo and stuff like that. I learned quite a bit from that experience, and then when I turned 18 I left and bought some plane tickets … just kind of bounced around, cooked and learned my trade.”

“Bouncing around” offered him a varied and rich education. Bodenstein said he spent a year in Seoul, Korea, a couple of months in Tokyo, a month in the south of France, two years in Hawaii, three years learning Italian-style cooking in Clarksville, Tennessee. Everywhere he went, he cooked.

“What I liked most about Asian cuisine and living there was what they really taught you is the simplicity of food, to make things beautiful without tons of ingredients on plates,” he said. “That’s where the restraint part of my cuisine really comes from; beauty is in the food when you get really great products. Take a piece of sushi. It’s just rice and a piece of fish, but when they’re two beautiful things together, they look so great.”

Wanting to up his game, he started culinary school at Sullivan University in Louisville, where he landed his first major sous-chef job working for chef Kathy Cary at the award-winning Lilly’s Bistro.

But then he discovered trout fishing.

“I dropped out (of Sullivan) because I learned how to fly fish. And it was way more fun than doing school,” Bodenstein said. “I just trout fished all spring and summer and half of fall. In Louisville there’s a place called Otter Creek. I spent a lot of days out there.”

The chef at Lilly’s reeled him back from Otter Creek, pushing him to finish school because he was so close to the finish line.

So, diploma in hand and with two-and-a-half years at the nationally known Lilly’s on his resume, Bodenstein planned to eventually go to either New York or the West Coast — he particularly admired Thomas Keller of The French Laundry. He was drawn to Keller’s devotion to the highest quality seasonal ingredients.

Before he set out for one of the coasts, however, opportunity pounced.

The son of a nurse and factory worker and one of nine siblings, Bodenstein came back to the west side of Cincinnati to visit family.

“At that time, I hadn’t seen a lot of family in this area in years. So it was just kind of, ‘Okay I’ll stop in,’ but then an opportunity came to open Nuvo the first time, so I took that opportunity,” he said.

His first restaurant in the area was Nuvo (in Newport), which he left in 2009 amid creative differences with co-owners. It closed not too long after. He worked at Chalk Food + Wine, now closed, and Nicholson’s Pub and Tavern. In 2013, he opened again as Nuvo At Greenup in Covington.

With Nuvo At Greenup, Bodenstein has both cemented his reputation as a star talent and given himself room to grow — literally.

Jeff Mathews of Cincinnati Magazine wrote in 2014 of Bodenstein’s “derring-do.”

“Bodenstein is skilled at nudging a few bites of humble comfort food into full-blown dishes that can be both vivid and compelling,” Mathews wrote. “Sussing out the idiosyncrasies of vegetables is a big part of Bodenstein’s ethos.”

When it first opened, there were no menu choices. The menu was entirely a chef’s tasting program, meaning guests ate whatever Bodenstein was cooking at the 35-seat restaurant (21 inside, 14 outside). This proved to be commercially limiting, however, and Nuvo now offers a la carte items as well as chef’s tasting.

As for growth, Bodenstein is now three years into an urban farming project at Nuvo. Along with the kitchen staff, he has been amending the soil in the large backyard of the 19th-century townhouse where his restaurant is housed, composting vegetable leftovers.

Nuvo At Greenup's back patio shares space with spinach, lettuces, herbs and other edibles. Photo by Jenny Burman

As a rule of thumb, it takes about three years’ worth of soil improvement to consider food grown from it organic. In the meantime, he grows herbs and vegetables for his kitchen in raised beds and containers on the property. Grape vines grow along the wall in between the restaurant and a neighboring building. Even a tiny area fronting Greenup hosts planter pots. Vegetables he does not grow on premises, he buys either from Carriage House Farm or from the Ohio Valley Food Connection.

“Were starting our own farm and our own ecosystem right outside of our backdoor,” Bodenstein said. “Our overall goal in the next three more years is that we can sustain ourselves on our own property. And we would only buy what we can’t produce, like honey or obviously meats … but from the vegetable standpoint what we really want and we’re really working to have our own sustainable resource to sustain ourselves and to feed ourselves and to feed our guests and to kind of take that idea of local to a whole new level.

Most restaurants have gardens, he added, but Bodenstein wants to take that much further.

“We want to say, ‘We have an urban farm, we can produce enough food to feed ourselves and to feed our guests that walk in through our door for a whole entire year,’” he explained.

The challenges begin with space — and not having enough of it.

“The more we read about it, the more intense we get about growing up or down a wall or doing things in small spaces where we can get a lot of production,” Bodenstein said. “Right now we’re starting our lettuce harvest and we’re doing a ton of herbs. Outside of that we’re waiting … It’s all the little baby stuff right now, all the greens.

“We’re hoping in the next couple years to really ramp it up.”

One uncertainty is real estate, as the restaurant is on leased property. When asked what he’d do if he lost his lease sometime down the road, after spending several years establishing a farm, Bodenstein shrugs.

“I’m a big believer in leaving things better than you found them,” he said.