I am going to jump out on a limb here and say it: Ryan Santos is one of the most interesting folks in the Cincinnati food community today. He uses hyper-local ingredients, including items he’s foraged out of his Prospect Hill back yard. His dinners are themed, but not obnoxiously so– more like a concept than anything else. He’s one of the most active on Twitter, talking about his kombucha-making adventures, or showing how he tweaks a recipe, like his grilled milk dessert. He doesn’t run a restaurant; instead, he has a high-end, pop-up dinner two weekends a month in the off-season Streetpops location on Main, or more recently a collaboration with Steven Shockley at Pallet 23.
Santos also can’t leave well enough alone. Though his Arts and Lettuce dinners have been hugely popular, selling out every seating and gaining extensive waiting lists, he’s packing up and heading to Belgium to stage (which is essentially a restaurant internship) at In De Wulf. ”I think their approach to dinners is similiar to mine, and similar to my past experience at Townhouse [under Chef John Shields, one of Food + Wine's 2011 Best New Chefs]: modern and creative cooking, in the middle of nowhere, with an intense focus on seasonality,” says Santos. He’ll be in Belgium for the month of April, with a brief sojourn to Paris, before he comes back to Cincinnati to start something new.
That new thing is a partnership with Carriage House Farms, which they first experimented with at a dinner in November. The dinners– now just called “Please”– will occur the first two weekends of each month, June-November, outdoors at the farm. All of the produce will be grown at the farm, in a plot exclusively for Please. For example, “peas at their peak are at their very best when eaten immediately after being picked. We’ll do a pea dish, where we dont pick the peas until right before they’re plated” — something that no other restaurant is doing. Meats will come from other local farms, like Napoleon Ridge and Mud Foot. They’ll be utilizing a hunter and a forager for wild game and produce. The catch? There’s no electricity where they’ll be cooking, so they’ll be cooking with fire on cast-iron instead of in a full restaurant kitchen.
Please will also be creating other items from the farm’s crops: a malt vinegar made from Carriage House Farm’s wheatberries, as well as an estate beer, from their wheatberries, cultivated wild hops, honey and herbs. These are “related to, but not exclusive to” the existing, pop-up dinner.
Pop-ups are becoming the rage– with Date by Steven Shockley, Jose Salazar at Pallet 23, and Frances Kroner’s Feast. What differentiates Please from everyone else? ”Some pop-ups are more family-style or casual. I think we take some risks to push people out of their comfort zone while trying to deliver something we proudly think is delicious, making something new a little less frightening,” Santos says, which makes me think of the much-maligned sweetbreads, which he served at the last Arts and Lettuce dinner I went to and was immediately gobbled up by everyone– including several diners who were a bit hesitant about sweetbreads. Delicious, a bit out of the ordinary? Success.
As far as the future: Santos isn’t certain. There is talk of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, but nothing officially planned. He’d like to do more collaborations with his chef friends: Jose Salazar, Nick Marckwald from Underground, Elias Leisring from Eli’s (and his “giant smoker”), or Chef Michael Paley from Metropole, who Santos feels “has the indoor version of our outdoor setup at Carriage House.” He’d also like to take lessons from the ladies at Thai Express, who could “cook circles around myself and most other chefs in town.”
Maybe his next collaboration will be with them?
There are still seats available for March Arts and Lettuce, and check out his website to view a video from his dinner at Carriage House Farms or to keep abreast of the goings-on in Belgium and beyond.