Leah Joos and Jen Lile would like you to try new things. The chefs/owners of the newest lunch spot in East Walnut Hills, Kitchen 452, want to introduce people to things they may not have thought to cook at home and to taste things they think they dislike. An example?
When I ask Joos what her favorite item is on Kitchen 452’s menu, she tells me that it’s the spicy pumpkin soup and then explains, “I actually don’t like pumpkin. I think it’s stringy and awful. But this soup is so surprising, so creamy and puts a little zing in your mouth.”
When your own cooking can amaze you, imagine what it can do for others. That’s why Kitchen 452 launched in January. Joos and Lile had both worked as academic advisors at the University of Cincinnati, encouraging students to follow their dreams, when they started to talk to each other about what they really wanted to do. They’d meet for a glass of wine and discuss their passion for food and cooking.
“We’re food lovers,” Joos explains. “Both of us love cooking for our family and friends.”
Then Lile was invited by her friend, a yoga teacher, to come on a yoga retreat in North Carolina and act as chef for the students. It became clear to her, then, that this was what she wanted to do with her life.
The two friends went through the entrepreneurship program at Springboard, ArtWorks’ business planning and development program, and had mentors who helped them form a business plan.
Then they found a location that they felt good about in East Walnut Hills, surrounded by other small businesses: the wonderful French grocery, wine and textiles shop, Bon Vivant; Hi-Bred vintage boutique; uber-cool Parlour hair salon; and Palette Studios, a custom lighting shop that has been in business for more than 90 years. Kitchen 452’s storefront space is very inviting, with exposed brick walls and handcrafted metal pipe-framed shelves.
When it came time to plan a menu, Joos and Lile decided to sit down in a coffee shop and write a list of everything they love to cook. With pages and pages of dishes in front of them, they started to sort through the list and ask, “How can we make a different take on what people expect?”
“Anything that left an impression on our mouths, that’s what you’re going to find here,” Joos says. They both like combinations of sweet and savory tastes, which led to dishes like their pear salad, with sweet bites of pear balanced against savory blue cheese and crunchy walnuts, and their hot ham and Swiss sandwich, with crunchy slices of tart green apples. All of the sandwiches are made with Shadeau Bakery breads and all of the salads are dressed with homemade vinaigrettes.
Lile is the primary baker, and if her lemon shortbread cookies are any indication, she’s talented. The cookies fly out the door in groups of three: “We haven’t gotten any complaints when people ask how much a cookie is and we tell them that you have to buy three for a dollar!” says Lile.
Besides cookies and brownies, Lile specializes in “simple” cakes — no triple-layers, just homey, honest olive oil and citrus cake or berry cake in the summer with a lemon glaze.
Joos talks about making dishes that are “just a little” unique — substituting roasted almonds in pesto to give it “meatiness” or sesame oil in hummus for an Asian note. The Moroccan carrot salad has smoky richness to offset its citrus notes and a recent lunch special featured orzo with roasted parsnips, carrots and butternut squash with soy ginger dressing. Joos is experimenting with spring dishes now, including smoked egg salad with paprika aioli.
“Eggs are very springy to me,” Joos says, “so I wanted the egg salad, but then for a twist I thought of smoked eggs. How to do that? Maybe with tea!”
Creativity and a little bit of daring — that’s what Kitchen 452 is aiming for. I ask the partners if they have concerns about opening their new business in what is, at best, a shaky economy.
“Jen and I feel really humbled,” Joos replies. “I’m sure some people look at us and think we’re crazy, but the desire to live the vision we have for our lives outweighs the scary parts.”
Go: 2714 Woodburn Ave., East Walnut Hills
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday