CINCINNATI -- Orlando Caraballo may be young in his culinary career, but this chef at Lachey’s Bar is a seasoned veteran when it comes to getting the job done right.
Before he joined the culinary force, he worked on strategic weapons for more than seven years in the Air Force.
"I worked on very dangerous weapons that could explode at a moment's notice," Caraballo recalled.
When the Air Force went through cutbacks, Caraballo left and turned to cooking for his second career. He enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of Ohio in Cincinnati and received his degree in 2012. After a couple of stints at local restaurants, he joined Lachey's as a line cook in December 2014 and worked his way up rapidly.
Caraballo now serves as the executive chef -- not that you would know it: This soft-spoken chef prefers not to call attention to himself.
"I've never been a fan of that," he said.
Knife Serves as Humble Reminder
Born and raised in Lorain, just outside of Cleveland, Caraballo joined the Air Force three days after graduating from high school. It was a natural path, considering the history of service in his family.
"I grew up in a military family. My mom and dad met in the Army, both her brothers were in the Navy, and then we have countless cousins who have served in every war all the way to Vietnam," he said.
When I caught up with Caraballo, he was preparing to show me what goes into the Cucumber Chicken Salad, a crowd favorite. I noticed a lone knife on the cutting board as I approached his work station in the kitchen.
"This is one of my favorite knives," he said, referring to the 6-inch Togiharu Damascus vegetable knife. Turns out, the knife is a humble reminder of his rough foray into the industry.
"My sous chef threw a case of Brussels sprouts in front of me and said, 'Cut them'," Caraballo recalled. "That was it, and he walked away."
Caraballo, who was not too certain how to cut Brussels sprouts, was so anxious about using his chef's expensive knife it took him all of one hour to cut 15 of them. He eventually got his own vegetable knife, the Togiharu, which he still uses today.
A Taste of Spring
On the day we met, his mise en place looked textbook, and he even kept ingredients like chicken and greens cold by sitting them over ice. Caraballo already had about 4 ounces of an Arcadian blend of mixed greens in a mixing bowl, over which he sprinkled a little salt and pepper.
"I like the addition of cucumbers," he said, as he added English cucumber to the salad. "We cut it in half, about 3/8 of an inch thick. If you like that blast of freshness, go thicker. If you don't, go thinner."
Caraballo picked up a squeeze bottle and drizzled spiced pomegranate vinaigrette over the greens as he explained the makings of the vinaigrette: "We took pomegranate juice, some nutmeg, whole cloves and sugar, and reduced that and made a syrup. Then we took some cider vinegar, a little bit of honey and oil to make an emulsion."
After adding about 2 ounces of the vinaigrette, Caraballo started arranging the tossed greens in a gentle mound on a deep plate.
"We plate the tossed greens, and the rest of it we put on top," he said. "You see all the ingredients, and there's never any question they're getting what they're paying for," he said, referring to the customers.
He added a smattering of candied walnuts to the plate. Caraballo had previously candied the walnuts by coating whole walnuts with a mixture of egg white, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon, then baking them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.
"They soften up during the candying process, so it kind of helps when eating with a fork," he added.
Crumbles of fresh goat cheese went on next, followed by chicken breast that had been grilled and diced. The briny goat cheese readily soaked up the tangy-sweet dressing for mini-pops of flavor. The fresh crispness of the cucumber and greens contrasted nicely with the meaty chicken.
For someone who shuns attention, Caraballo was initially not sure how working for a couple of celebrities would pan out. But working for Nick and Drew Lachey has been quite, well, normal.
"Whenever they're in town, they come in and we have a business discussion," Caraballo said. "When business is done, we just talk, like normal people."
“How Chefs Roll” takes you inside the kitchens of local chefs to see how they roll with seasonal flavors, their favorite ingredients and how they prepare them for their restaurants. Grace Yek 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