Chef Chris Burns cut his teeth in the kitchens of Jean-Robert de Cavel and Nicola Pietoso, but later this year he’ll finally see his very own restaurant open in Covington’s Mainstrasse Village.
Commonwealth Bistro has been two-and-a-half years in the making for Burns and his wife Tess, the duo who founded The Awesome Collective, an organization that spreads everything great about the community of Covington. But for Burns, opening his own place has been a challenge of erudition.
“When I first set out to do this, I didn’t have the faintest clue,” Burns says. “Not even an inkling. ... I knew how to prepare great meals and run kitchens. I’ll try the next great adventure and open my own place. It turned out, two-and-a-half years later after a lot of hard knocks and learning, we finally get our first opportunity over here.”
Burns is running around a little crazy trying to meet his late November/early December deadline in opening the place.
“Tess and I always joke that it’s like riding a rollercoaster and you just grin and bear it and hope that everything works out,” Burns says about the life of an entrepreneur. “It was really throwing everything we have into the game.”
Commonwealth occupies two storefronts: 621 and 623 Main St., which are two historical buildings that received a $150,000 municipal loan in exchange for restoring the buildings.
To raise money for the restaurant, they’re launching an Indiegogo campaign on Oct. 7.
So far, Burns is pretty mum about Commonwealth’s menu items, but he does want to serve Americana regional influences and will be sourcing locally as much as possible.
“When we say locally sourced, I enjoy that term a little bit more than just being farm-to-table because so often times there’s stuff in restaurants that you can’t get grown locally but you can at least spend your money with a local company to get what you need,” Burns says.
The Burns family will grow herbs at the restaurant, and they own a half-acre of land in Highland Heights where they’re currently harvesting squash.
Unlike a lot of young kids, Burns from a young age knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I started in food when I was a kid in Cincinnati working with my grandmother over the stove on breakfast before we went to school,” Burns says. “She’d always pull everything out of the fridge. I mean, she made everything, all the time. She called it ‘smorgasbord.’ We’d come down and the whole kitchen table was full with food.”
His interest in foodstuff led him to Scarlet Oaks’ vocational program where he met an instructor who tried to dissuade him from going into the culinary arts.
“He comes to me: ‘You don’t want to be a part of this. You want to be on your feet 60-70 hours a week? You want to work hard every day of your life for the rest of your life and have blown out knees and a messed up back? You don’t want any of that. It’s not for you,’” Burns recalls. “Well, I guess that wasn’t the challenge that I needed. From that point on, I was kind of like, ‘Forget you, I’m going to do it.’”
He soon discovered cooking made sense to him.
“I just found that working with food and flavor and techniques were something that I understood and was good at,” he says.
Burns spent time working in kitchens in Louisville, Ky., and the West Coast but came back to Cincinnati and worked at JeanRo Bistro, then most recently Nicola’s, a job he left a few months ago to focus on Commonwealth full time.
“I think Cincinnati’s food scene is amazing,” Burns says. “Cincinnati’s food scene has always been amazing. From days that I don’t even remember, because I wasn’t around, Cincinnati boasted a plethora of fantastic restaurants. And then when I got back into the city, it was on a re-emerging path. And now I think it’s extremely vibrant. … There’s something for everyone.”
With that mentality, Burns is banking on the success of Commonwealth.
He not only wants it to be a comfortable place for his guests but for his employees as well.
“I hope Commonwealth just naturally integrates into the community,” Burns says. “I want Commonwealth to be that fun place that everybody likes to go and hang out to have some great food and some great conversation. It’s a place for them to be themselves. I want Commonwealth to be for the commonwealth, for the community. That’s what it’s always been about.”
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