, the newest addition to Over-the-Rhine's burgeoning food scene, is more than just a catering business and eat-in kitchen. The new spot at the corner of Main Street and Liberty opened by Sierra Laumer and Leah Heisel Grande is really about furthering the community conversation through a love of food and family with a side order of carpe diem
Laumer, a 2005 graduate of Cincinnati State's culinary arts program, enlisted lifelong friend, Leah Heisel Grande to put their eat-in kitchen concept into action. The two grew up together in Winton Place, now Spring Grove, and had previously worked together at What's for Dinner? and Daveeds. Both made the move out West - Heisel Grande to Colorado after attending Ohio University - Laumer to Walla Walla, Washington with a boyfriend who wanted to learn how to make wine. Walla Walla's bountiful restaurant scene provided the initial inspiration for Laumer to put her culinary degree to the test.
"It has an amazing food scene, tons of agriculture and fresh produce and totally different than anything I had experienced here in the city. People cook differently, and eat differently. It is totally inspiring," she recalls.
But Laumer wanted to start her own business and knew she would need the support of family and friends, and the advantage of a much more affordable market to make her mark.
"There are a lot of other transplants [in Walla Walla] and things are way more expensive," she says. "I wouldn't have been able to have that kind of support out there."
Laumer says her sister Jenna, who had also moved to Walla Walla to work in the wine making industry, helped hatch the plot to open her own place.
"She was a lot of the inspiration, always involved in the food part of this. There was a lot of dreaming together on what would be the ideal place," she says.
That place turned out to be Over-the-Rhine and how Laumer and Heisel Grande ultimately arrived there to open forkheartknife is equal parts bittersweet and inspirational.
After returning from Washington, Laumer's sister Jenna began working for Urban Sites where she kept her sister apprised about the resurgent development in the Gateway Quarter
. Not completely new to the neighborhood, Laumer and Heisel Grande had been working at Coffee Emporium
providing some catering services. The Coffee shop's urban 'center of the universe' vibe made an impression on the fledgling business partners.
"There's so much community support in OTR, so many great interactions with other business owners, 3CDC, Urban Sites. Everyone is really supportive of each other. We fell in love with it because of that," Laumer recalls. It also fit in nicely with their idea of a 'community' eat-in kitchen to complement their catering business.
"A big part of what we wanted to create with the new space is a sense of community," Heisel Grande says.
Then, Jenna was diagnosed with cancer in April 2009, and Laumer spent the past year cooking for her sister. She says food played a pivotal role in making things more bearable for Jenna and her close knit family while dealing with the endless visits and sterile environs of hospitals.
"The food would change the way we would experience the place," she would recall.
Now, inspired personally by the power of food to bring people together, Laumer started planning for the type of restaurant she could open when Jenna recovered.
That was not to be. Jenna died this past January, and Laumer says losing her sister made her realize how very precious time is and, armed with the knowledge that life is short and the unending spirit of her sister, she put her plans on a fast track.
"I'm not going to sit around and cry about this," she recalls. "I'm going to do something."
Appropriately, it had been Jenna who convinced Laumer to move to Over-the-Rhine to live when she returned from Washington, and ultimately Jenna's boss at Urban Sites
, Greg Olsen, who would help Laumer and Heisel Grande identify the perfect spot on Main Street in a space previously occupied by Take the Cake to start their new venture.
In three months time, Laumer and Heisel Grande, with the unending help of family and friends, began setting up shop in their new storefront. Laumer acknowledges her sister's passing put her on an accelerated timeline.
"It's a big part of where the action part of this took place. That's it."
Now open less than one week, the business plans to evolve naturally according to Laumer.
"We're going to use it as a catering kitchen and whatever eat-in happens is going to be something we think will be fun and have food ideas for," she says.
The catering part of forkheartknife will take up the majority of their time, but they plan to use social media (Laumer has a colorful blog
) and word of mouth to keep their customers up on when the kitchen is 'open.' Heisel Grande says their hours will evolve based on what their customers and neighbors' wants are and what the small shop can accommodate.
"We want to figure out what's needed first. People here need lunch, breakfast, dinner and late night. We'd like to tap into what is happening but we're only going to answer a piece of it," she says.
The pair do plan to be open for Second Sundays in OTR
, offering muffins and tarts, and have another tapas idea for upcoming Final Fridays
Part of the novelty of forkheartknife will be the absence of a set menu. Laumer says they'll stick with small plates and street food inspired by the produce they source at Findlay
and local farmers markets as well as from a friend's farm in Oxford, keeping its simple and straightforward.
"I love eating food as tapas, having a few little bites and making it last a long time. It transforms really easy to street food. We're putting them in to-go containers so people will take them," she says.
Heisel Grande agrees and says it was always part of the plan to capture that sense of community they both enjoyed out West that will make forkheartknife unique.
"Things that bring people together, color, flavor and eating with your hands - the whole idea of slow-eating as well," she says. "Having it be an experience as opposed to just nourishing yourself,"
And Heisel Grande hopes forkheartknife's customers are ready to trust Laumer - she certainly does.
"Sierra is intensely creative when she's cooking. Getting bogged down with a menu that doesn't change is hard for a chef, this is their art, so we'd love for it to be the kind of thing where customers are ready to eat whatever she's preparing. We're really asking for their trust," she says.
Their cozy eat-in kitchen offered a soft opening this past weekend. Occupying most of the small storefront's space, the kitchen opens up to hand crafted wooden benches and tables - made from reclaimed materials from the former Clark Montessori school that Laumer's father gifted her, and handcrafted by her sister Jenna's boyfriend, Timmy Carlin. Friday night's offerings - hand written on brown paper wrapping affixed to the wall included 'quickles,' Laumer's overnight pickles, speared with root vegetables on a kabob, bocadillos with prosciutto and manchego cheese, and roasted crispy potatoes.
The kitchen was packed with friends, family, and many of forkheartknife's curious neighbors drawn in by the activity as much as the hearty smells flowing out of the door. Sunday, they held a special sold-out Mother's day brunch with egg tarts and fruit gazpacho and a flourless chocolate cake - a nod of appreciation to Laumer's 'chocoholic' mother. It all has the feeling of a Sunday afternoon with family.
"Sierra's cooking is unique," says Heisel Grande. "I've experienced firsthand what it's like to show up in her kitchen and be handed a plate of food. That's really what sold me on this concept. The food is so good, and creative, and it makes you really happy."
It's a mutually beneficial relationship according to Laumer.
"It makes me really happy to cook," she says. "I need to watch you eat it because that makes me happy."
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Photography by Scott Beseler
Mother's Day brunch, Second Sunday on Main
Sierra Laumer and
Leah Heisel Grande
Gazpacho bowls, the fourth of five courses
Sorbet sodaSierra Laumer,
Jenna Laumer (photo) and
Leah Heisel Grande