Work is a labor of love for chef at Fifty West

Posted at 6:37 AM, Sep 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-16 06:37:15-04

CINCINNATI-- Work is a lot of fun for John Tomain, executive chef at Fifty West Brewing Co. in Mariemont.

“When you’re done, you get to sample the product,” he said, letting out a hearty laugh.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Tomain moved to Cincinnati when he was 3 years old, and he has since lived in the Queen City.

Tomain graduated from St. Xavier High School and was on track for a degree in history and political science until he found his true calling – the kitchen. While in college, he bussed tables at Pano e Vino (now Alfio’s Buon Cibo) and cooked in LaRosa’s kitchen. But toward the end of college, Tomain’s gig at Coconut Grove (now The Newport Syndicate) changed his course.


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“I started working there and loved it,” Tomain said. He stepped away from college and has not looked back.

He has worked at various restaurants since, including Dewey’s, and Keystone Bar and Grill in Covington, where he was the head chef. Then Fifty West came along.

A New Chapter For Fifty West

The brewery was not serving food at that time, and the opportunity to build the food service operation from scratch was irresistible. “There’s more freedom, and I’ve got full control of the menu,” he said.

Tomain joined Fifty West in January 2013, and the kitchen opened a month later. He takes an organic approach when he refreshes the menu seasonally.

“It’s like music where you’re coming up with it as you go,” he said.

He describes his food as new American, where he takes a classic dish and puts his own spin on it.

So does the beer or food come first when he creates the menu? There are so many types of beer, and they change often enough, that Tomain is confident whatever he puts on the menu, “There’s usually something that’s going to pair with it.”

That’s not to say he’s doesn’t think about pairings. For example, the mussels dish: They are steamed in lobster broth and hit with a little coconut milk and chili peppers. Tomain pointed to the Coast to Coast IPA as a good pairing.

“It has some citrus notes, and a little spiciness to it, so that can help diffuse the spiciness of the dish,” he said. “That’s the difference between beer and wine. Beer can handle heat. Wine can’t handle it. It doesn’t calm it down.”

All About The Business

Tomain describes himself as “pretty laid-back until business time.” He said he has worked for military-style chefs, and that’s just not him: “I’m not going to bug you if you’re doing your job.”

Tomain also is conscious about keeping his food affordable.

“You want people to come in and have a few beers, enjoy themselves and not feel like they broke the bank,” he said.

In a display of pricing prudence and culinary prowess, he turned the modest brisket into a top-selling sandwich, the Debris Melt. He braises and shreds the brisket, ramps up the flavor with caramelized onion, banana peppers and mushrooms, then tops the sandwich off with smoked Gouda.

Not bad for a chef who has got one hand figuratively tied behind his back.

“We’re rebuilding the kitchen and have no fire right now. We’re working off a double stack convection oven and a couple of electrical burners,” he said.

However, by this Saturday’s Fifty Fest, Fifty West’s annual festival of beer, food and music, Tomain will have his kitchen back, with new gas burners and a ventilation hood. Kitchen mayhem or not, this chef is not skipping a beat when it comes to serving up the goods at Fifty Fest.

“We’ll have beer cheese, and four or five different meatballs, like Moroccan, Cuban, chorizo and traditional meatballs,” he said. “We’ll make sandwiches with them.”

This year will be the festival’s third. “We started doing it for something to do after Labor Day,” Tomain said. “It’s grown. Hopefully at some point, we’ll have to find a bigger venue for it.”

Fifty West Brewing Co.
7668 Wooster Pike, Mariemont