My Soapbox: Chef Joe West, The Palace at The Cincinnatian Hotel

It's been three months since Chef Joe West moved from Kansas City to take over the kitchen of The Palace restaurant inside The Cincinnatian Hotel. After several years of moving from city to city, looking for the right fit, things are cooking for West in Cincinnati. Soapbox checked in with West to get an update on the new chef's experience in the Queen City.

Does the city feel like home yet? Do you intend to stay here for good?
I’m starting to get into a routine and remembering where things are around town. There are a lot of great restaurants to eat at, and I have taken advantage of that. I’m definitely looking forward to enjoying the museums, going to the Reds games, attending shows at the local theatres and hanging out at festivals. The chefs around town have been incredibly gracious in letting me be a part of the food community, so that’s made it a lot easier for me to feel like Cincinnati could be a long-term stay for me. I’ve also met a lot of genuine people in Cincinnati that love food and have made me feel very welcome here.  
What's been your biggest challenge in moving to Cincinnati?
I was basically one day away from making my move to Seattle when I decided to change plans and move to Cincinnati. I spent a few months trying to open my own restaurant in Kansas City, but it didn’t work out, so I had spent that time preparing myself to make a big move. So, it wasn’t very difficult. Coming from a middle market midwestern city, like Kansas City, out to Cincinnati in the east, has been a bigger change than I had anticipated. The culture and mannerisms are very different here. It’s been fun experiencing another part of the country, and I’m actually near a lot of my extended family who live in this region. That makes it even better, since I can take a short three-hour drive down south to Kentucky for our family reunion for the 4th of July.
Why did you decide to work in kitchens? Are you following in the footsteps of any family?
I grew up around the restaurant business my whole life. My mother was a server at a couple of popular restaurants in Kansas City, where I grew up. She never stopped moving. On top of all of the household tasks, she worked lunch and dinner at her job almost every day of the week. When I was little, I’d be the kid wandering around in the kitchen or running around out back. My dad would pick my sister and I up after he got off work and then I’d see my mom come home later from work, where I would hear all of the restaurant stories from that day.

Both my parents enjoy dining out, as well, and I always loved the experiencing of eating out at restaurants. We were a busy family, so usually our only days we would eat as a family would be Sundays, and that was always a lot of fun for me.

How has the menu changed since your arrival? What do you intend to do in the long run?
I’ve changed The Palace menu completely twice due to the seasons changing and the staff getting better. I also make small changes constantly because I believe in the process of menu evolution and always staying fresh. I hate being stagnant. I’m constantly making changes to get better, and it’s a process. I know where I want us to be at, but I can’t explain what that is because it’s never been achieved. Obviously, quality of food will always get better, the quality of service will always get better and quality of the workplace will always get better. But there’s something even bigger than that, and a lot of it has to do with thinking on a much higher level.

My sous chefs and I are the ones with the 5-star, 5-diamond and Michelin experience. We have to create that same mindset with the whole hotel, and that will take some time to happen. It’s not the awards that we are concerned about but it’s the culture and the mindset that we want to achieve. My approach can be a paradox at times. I follow a lot of traditional approaches with the way I run my kitchen and the way I look at food, but I also instill systems that you wouldn’t normally see from a fine dining chef. I think it’s because of my background of working in all types of food services. I’ve done the ultra-fine dining, the typical hotel fine dining, casual breakfast joints, bistros, the giant resorts, food trucks and a lot of other places.

Are you still living in the hotel? Has that been a unique experience?
I lived at the hotel for about a couple of months. It was very convenient in many ways, like being able to just take the elevator downstairs to work, or if I forgot something I was only a minute away from my room. I’ve never experienced this before, and I realized being at your workplace for 24/7 can take a toll on someone mentally. It felt like one big blur. There were definitely a lot of pros and cons. I would do it again because it gave me an opportunity to have more of an educated decision on where I want to live.

How would you describe your technique? Do you look to any particular regions or disciplines for inspiration?
My technique is based on everywhere I’ve worked and my personal testing out of different ideas. I used to think real hard on the type of food I serve, and I feel like I’ve matured over the years. Now, I just cook food without overthinking about it. I’m definitely influenced by the region that we are in, and I’m also influenced by our guests. The point of cooking for people is to make people happy. So, I try to create dishes that bring a pleasant surprise to them. That doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s one of the greatest rewards as a chef.

I also take in consideration of the types of eaters we have in our guests, and that sometimes means I have to be flexible. Working for people like James Beard Award-winning chefs like Colby Garrelts of bluestem and Alex Stratta of Alex at Wynn Las Vegas has instilled a strong focus in me. These places are about creating a culture where the attitudes of the employees are all about what’s best for the restaurant and not what’s best for them. People that work at these types of places are highly skilled, highly focused and strong-minded. You never stop moving, you’re taking critiques from your peers and you’re always getting better. We had servers come in on their days off to sit in our daily line ups; some would come in to help put up their own artwork on our walls, come in and fix minor repairs around the restaurant, or even just come in to talk to me about our menu so they had a better understanding. Our bartenders would have meetings to go over things to get better, our servers would meet up to discipline themselves in being a better team, and the cooks would put their whole lives into the work that we do. Bringing this type of culture is not easy, but my cooks are all-stars and we have a promising future for all of us.

Have you ascertained Cincinnati's favorite foods from your experience serving us? What could they be?
I love Eli’s BBQ—it reminds me of home. I really enjoyed the pastas at Sotto, the fried chicken at The Eagle, tacos at Bakersfield, the charcuterie at Local 127, the lunch tray at Jean Robert’s Table, and the pizzas at A Tavola. Boca was my first dining experience here, and it was outstanding. I still have a long list of places to eat at, like Salazar, Orchids, Bouquet and Metropole. I know I’m missing a bunch of other great places. I’ve been trying to follow as many chefs as I can on Instagram and facebook. I try to be my own pastry chef as well, but Orchids' pastry chef Megan Ketover’s desserts look crazy good, and I even got to sneak in a bite of her dessert at 1 Night 12 Kitchens—which was amazing. This town is stacked with talent, and I wish Cincinnati would get more national exposure.

What other restaurants in the city have you sampled? Which was your favorite? Who is your toughest competition?
I haven’t had a whole lot of free time to actually go through a true dining experience from making a reservation and having more than just an hour of time to eat. Almost all of my dining has been after I get off of work at late nights, and I’m trying to sneak in before they close. Everywhere has been awesome so far. I don’t look at everyone else as competition because I feel like we all should be supporting each other. A little bit of friendly competition doesn’t hurt, though.

What advice would you give somebody interested in establishing a career in the kitchen? 
It’s about making people happy. Do whatever is necessary to make that level of happiness as high as possible. Be willing to put your life into this.  

Is there anything else you would like to add?
It’s not just about me. It takes a team.

Sean M. Peters is a freelance writer and editor living in Clifton.  
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