Jose Salazar had a gig that a lot of chefs would envy — but dreams can be more powerful than a sure bet.
Salazar moved to Cincinnati from New York in 2008 to head the kitchen at The Palace in the Cincinnatian Hotel, a respected dining room in a landmark hotel that had recently been upgraded to chic, boutique status. With pastry chef Summer Genetti at his side, Salazar converted a core group of diners who had believed that you should never sleep in a restaurant, and never eat in a hotel.
“Hotels are tough,” Salazar says. “People assume that the food is sub-par or boring. It took awhile to change that. We had to woo people in.”
But woo he did, building a following of fans and earning the designation “2011 People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes Region” from Food & Wine magazine. Then, in December 2012, he left The Palace with the intention of opening his own place.
“Sure, you give up some security, but by doing my own thing, having it be small, I’m in control,” he says. “It’s my philosophies, my personality, my cooking. I can focus on what I really want and what the public really wants.”
Salazar’s plan for his eponymous new eatery is to create a restaurant that reflects Over-the-Rhine.
“The neighborhood’s diverse and my cooking is diverse,” he says. “I want it to be a nice match for everybody, with no one excluded and no sticker shock.”
The goal for Salazar’s menu is that nothing rings in more than $24, with most menu items priced between $5 and $15
“We’ll be doing cured and potted, making our own rillettes, terrines and charcuterie. I’ll have newer proteins, some less familiar ingredients; a rabbit ragù over hand-rolled cavatelli pasta, with mascarpone and a touch of cardamom, finished with pecorino Romano.”
“Since it’s ingredient-driven, the menu can change,” he continues. “But it’s going to be fun for the guests and fun for the cooks to keep things bright and fresh.”
You can sense Salazar’s passion when he talks about dishes that he can barely wait to serve — dishes like risotto with the flavors of paella, crusty bread with marrow butter or confit tuna with homemade crackers.
“I’ll be able to execute the way I want to execute,” he says. “I’ve had a hand in all of it, which is what I’ve always wanted. I picked out everything, from the décor and the glassware to the staff.”
He pauses to think about what that means. “So it’s to me, then — I’ll get the praise or the blame.”
The opening date for Salazar, at the corner of 14th and Republic streets, is planned for early December. Right now, there’s a lot of very basic work underway — the space is framed out, the plumbing is roughed in, but it’s hard for a visitor to imagine the finished brasserie. For the chef, who’s walking around with tile chips and linen napkin samples, it’s already real.
“This is the marble for the countertop,” he says as he displays a 3-inch square. “The base will be wrought iron. This leather is the cover for the wine books.”
Much of the special fabrication is being done in the West End at the Brush Factory. Salazar enjoys working with them; they’re “cool.” When he talks about the antique pulley lights that will hang above the bar, you can almost see their light reflected in his eyes.
“My challenge,” he says, “is to make every person that comes in the door feel happy and like they got a special experience. They can feel comfortable; dress any way they like. I just want them to have great food and great service.”
Annie Rosenthal, formerly of A Tavola and Nicola’s, will be managing the front of the house. Jacob Trevino, who came from New Orleans, is heading up the bar. In an unexpected choice, Salazar has Brian Neumann on board as pastry chef. Neumann, a server at Senate, is self-taught, but Salazar says he loves to bake and loves what he’s doing.
“Why not give it a go?” he says, putting his faith right out there, on the vision of a marble table in front of him.
“I know expectations are high. People keep telling me they can’t wait and that’s pressure. But I feel very ready. I want people to come in and enjoy it. Enjoy the whole experience. I want to make people happy.”
For updates on Salazar, follow @SalazarOTR on Twitter.