My Soapbox: Chef Daniel Wright, Senate, Abigail Street, Pontiac BBQ

To suggest that Chef Daniel Wright has been on a hot streak the last five years would be the very definition of an understatement. Wright and his wife Lana (co-owner and general manager) have opened two wildly successful Over-the-Rhine restaurants, starting in 2010 with Senate, followed by Abigail Street in 2011. Senate, located at 12th and Vine Streets, offers gourmet hot dogs, truffle fries, poutine and a list of creative dishes too long to list here. Abigail Street, located next door, is a wine bar serving up small plates of delicious Mediterranean dishes.

Both restaurants have received rave reviews and are always filled to capacity—and the city is taking notice. Families of Reds fans, empty-nesters, out-of-towners, young professionals and more were lined up eagerly anticipating the one-of-a-kind hot dogs inside Senate while customers packed the house at Abigail Street on a recent evening following a Reds game.

Wright has been recognized by several national publications and networks, including The Food Network, and he was named Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes Region in 2012. He just released his first cookbook, Senate: Street and Savory, in May. With a third restaurant—Pontiac Bourbon and BBQ—due to open next month, this seemed like the ideal time to reach out to Chef Wright to talk about Cincinnati’s emerging food culture. Sitting at what he claimed was the ‘romantic table’ by the front window at Abigail Street we did exactly that.

Having worked at acclaimed restaurants in Chicago and Los Angeles, you likely could have made a career for yourself anywhere. What made you to decide to build in Cincinnati?
Well, Lana and I met when we were both working in Chicago, and she grew up in Cincinnati and her family still lived here, so we used to visit all the time. I really loved the layout of the city, the parks and the architecture. For being a pretty big city there was so much green and things were very accessible. We were also at a point where we were looking to settle down, put down roots and start a family, so the affordability of living in Cincinnati along with everything the city offered was a big part of that decision. The opportunity to build and develop played a role also—there seemed like a lot of potential.

Since coming to Cincinnati, what about the city has most captivated or intrigued you?
The speed of change and development has been amazing. Cincinnati had a great food scene 20 years ago, but had kind of fallen off. Not to say there weren’t still great restaurants here, just not to the extent there was before. I think David Falk (Boca/Sotto) has had a huge impact on the cultural shift as far as that goes, and Jean Robert (De Cavel) also. There has just been such a change as far as going from a place where food and restaurants were sort of just there to now where you have a community that is interested in trying new things, experiencing food in ways they might not have five, six years ago.

Honestly, with the amount of great places to eat, not just in Over-the-Rhine, but all over the city, Cincinnati—with the exception of Chicago—is the best food city in the Midwest. Places like Indianapolis, Cleveland or wherever don’t have anywhere near the number of great chefs, great restaurants and buzz that Cincinnati has right now. You look at the way people in Cincinnati have embraced the food scene here, too, and that has been amazing. We always had planned on opening up Abigail Street, but Senate always needed to come first because you needed to generate that kind of interest in trying new things. And to do it with more street food, which is more familiar, made more sense. I don’t think we could have sold people on grilled octopus and fattoush or even something like the bone marrow at Senate without earning their trust first with more accessible food like the hot dog.
I saw you are on the Executive Committee for the Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic next month (September 12-13 in Washington Park), and before we sat down you were meeting with people from the event. So what all does your role entail?
Part of it is the whole event planning deal, which is what we were just talking about: planning competitions like the ‘Street Fight’ and things like that. But also along with that it is determining the ingredients to be used in the competition and not having it just be goetta and oysters or goetta tacos—that sort of thing, you know? The big thing I have worked on, though, is bringing in other chefs from around the country—guys like Ned Elliot (chef/owner of Foreign & Domestic in Austin, Texas) and other people like that, to make sure the event drew the type of attention it deserves.

This isn’t just another ‘taste’ event, which we have plenty of already, but something bigger where the goal is to shine a light on Cincinnati and the world-class food scene here. To draw attention to all the great things going on. Another part of my role is to not just help get talented people here, but to get magazines like Saveur and Bon Appetit here to tell the story of Cincinnati’s food scene and boast or broadcast that story in a way the city itself might not. The big thing is to show how restaurants in Cincinnati have become part of the landscape, part of the fabric that defines who the city is and where it is going.

What was the major inspiration behind the cookbook Senate: Street and Savory? What are/were your hopes with the book?
With the cookbook, the idea really first came out of customers wanting to know recipes, how we made different dishes at Senate. People would ask stuff like, ‘Can you tell me how you make those mussels?’ And there was no reason not to: You want people to be excited by your food and to try and bring it into their own kitchen. Plus, there hadn’t been a cookbook about hot dogs—the kind of thing we’ve been doing—before, so there was a definite opening in the market for the kind of book I wanted to put together. The whole process was probably the hardest thing I’ve worked on professionally to this point, and when it came out about two months ago that was an amazing feeling. We wanted to write it in a way where you get a more ‘behind the scenes,’ a more intimate view of how Senate came to be beyond what you might read in a newspaper or magazine. The big goal was to write a cookbook that the type of person that collects cookbooks would want. I’ve got over 300 cookbooks myself and wanted this to be something I would want to add to the collection.

I recall seeing photos and updates on Senate/Abigail Street’s social media accounts a few months back during what I am going to call your ‘Meat Sweats Tour,’ while you were planning or researching for your new restaurant Pontiac Bourbon and BBQ. Where all did you venture?
All over the place really. The big thing we want to do with Pontiac is a best of or ‘greatest hits’ of BBQ, but done Ohio-style. We visited places like Franklin’s BBQ (Austin) and Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas, because in order to get a feel for how brisket is done, you go to where they do it best and they do it best in Texas. If you want the best ribs you go to places like Memphis. That being said, you don’t want to just copy what they do, but put your own twist or spin on it. Ultimately, what we want isn’t to just be the place people think of when they think BBQ and Cincinnati; we want Pontiac to be the place people think of when they think BBQ and Ohio, BBQ and the Midwest. I think it is going to be the kind of place that does more takeout than Senate or Abigail Street—it should be the most accessible. People coming to get ribs or brisket to eat at the park, their backyard, Lumenocity, that sort of thing. Ideally, it will be open in late September.

Where do you find your inspiration in terms of new ideas, dishes, concepts, etc.?
Of course, you have to pay attention to magazines like Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, all of those. That is critical to knowing what is going on all over and in the industry in general. That is huge just paying attention. Finding things that are being done and that you like or think sound interesting and trying to make it your own. Traveling is a big thing too. Getting out and just taking in as much as you can. Not just to the places in magazines or on TV, but what people eat, locals eat, wherever you go. People know what’s good, and that is the best way to find new ideas or inspiration—by getting out there and experiencing whatever you can.

Where do you see things in five years? You, the restaurants/brand, the neighborhood, the city?
That’s hard to say. I know that when we opened in Over-the-Rhine back in 2010 people thought we were fucking crazy. You  know, a gourmet hot dog restaurant? 12th and Vine? Because at the time, a lot of people wouldn’t have considered crossing Central Parkway, but look at where things are now. So in that sense, I think the risk has really paid off because we have become a big part of what is going on down here. Even at the time, it was like there are five theaters within a three-minute walking distance, lots of parking, all that sort of stuff, and there were hardly any places to eat? That, to me, was crazy. I think, going forward, it is almost all positive and that things seem to be on this really exciting upswing.

You have more restaurants and bars opening further north and branching out. Things that will broaden the horizons of the ‘foodie-types’ with different kinds of cuisine. You have more people moving into our area, putting down roots; more shops opening, the street car getting up and running. That all allows the neighborhood and city to keep on that upswing. And it isn’t like this is just in Over-the-Rhine.There are great places popping up and coming into their own all over the city. I’d love to see more varied cuisine, though; Cincinnati has a ridiculous amount of great Indian and Mexican restaurants. Seriously, the Indian food here is better than what you can get in bigger cities like San Francisco. I’d love to see some great Chinese restaurants develop. Hell, that is the type of place this city needs—great dim sum, the kind of place with the pot of tea on the fucking table and everything. Maybe that is where we go next; I’d love to do a great, bad-ass Chinese restaurant.

So you come from a Polish and Irish family. Is there a favorite dish you remember from growing up?
Obviously, perogies. There is this dish my mom always made—still makes—roast pork with bread dumplings, sour kraut and gravy. That is it for me. That’s the meal that I’d want to be my last, what I’d take on the deserted island or whatever. It is hard to describe how much I love that, those dumplings. My mom moved to Cincinnati recently, and it is tough to resist the urge to call her up and do the whole ‘Mom, the pork and dumpling’ kind of thing.

Do you have a favorite culinary trend right now? Least favorite?
The big thing I love right now is America’s falling in love or back in love with BBQ. I love how popular that is becoming; getting together with a bunch of strangers and friends over some slow-cooked meat—no fuss, just great food.

Honestly, I’d rather talk about what I don’t like right now though. I am so fucking over tasting menus. That’s not to say they are all bad—we did a tasting at Orchids recently that was great, but as a trend I fucking hate it because I feel like it takes away from the experience of enjoying your meal. You have people come to your restaurant and spend all this money and they have no say or opinion on what they get to eat. To me it is just being overly elaborate and fucking whimsical just for the sake of being whimsical. People should be able to order what they want, within reason, and walk out of your place satisfied. This whole attempt to be ‘uber-creative’ takes the focus off the technique too! Like you look at what Jeremy Lieb and everyone at Boca is doing—their technique is perfect, and that is why Boca is one of the best restaurants in the U.S. They don’t try to overcomplicate things, they keep it simple—which is really hard to do because there is no hiding your mistakes. That is what sets them apart. Why the hell would you want to go spend a week’s salary to eat a plate of freshly foraged foliage or drop $300 to enjoy edible dirt and lemongrass flavored ants walking around on a leaf? I just hate that whole aspect of the tasting menu thing and I want it to die.

What was your first restaurant job?
My first job was working in my uncle’s bowling alley at 13 or 14 making pizza for the all the drunk bowling alley people. It was literally just pushing a pizza in the oven, heating it up and then off it went. I also worked fast food—McDonald’s—the type of thing where you get off smelling like fried oil, a grease trap. I was like 16, 17, and with McDonald’s, any of the food left at the end of the day you can take with you, so I was always showing up to meet my friends with bags of chicken nuggets, burgers, fries. They were typically stoned or whatever, so it was a great setup for them.

What is the one big piece of advice you would offer any young, aspiring chef or restaurateur out there?
Honestly, the biggest thing is to be prepared to work your ass off. This isn’t the sort of job where you can half-commit. If you are worried about making sure you get your time off or long hours isn’t your thing, then don’t bother. To succeed in this world, you need to be a grinder. Be willing to learn and don’t ever think you know everything. If you were to come here looking for a job and, you know, ask about vacation, then you came to the wrong place because this is an all-the-time kind of job.

In the kitchen, music or no music? If music, what are you listening to?
Music. Absolutely, all the time. There is never not music playing when we are in the kitchen. It is constant. The big thing lately has been, what the hell is it? Dammit, what is it they are always listening to on Friday? It is these two white guys singing some soft rock or R&B, something like?
(confirms with employee)
Air Supply! That’s it. ‘Air Supply Friday,’ which I think has switched to ‘Air Supply Tuesday’?
(confirms with employee)
Yeah, so ‘Two Live Crewsday’ is on Tuesday, ‘Air Supply Friday.’ We use my Pandora account here, and they go through so many stations that I will be home and try to put something on, like find a kid’s station for the boys (Oliver and Knox), and there is all this ridiculous stuff. I mean, they use up all 100 or so stations.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned since opening up your own restaurant?
A big part of what I have learned is to be a leader by delegating and trusting the people around you to execute without you micromanaging them. Also figuring out how different people respond or learn and changing how you interact with them based on what they respond to. Not everybody is going to be the kind of person that can handle screaming and shouting, that sort of thing, so that has been something I have tried to work on—knowing how to communicate effectively.

The biggest thing I have worked on, especially since the boys were born in 2011, is how to balance work and family. Both Lana and I work in the business, so we basically trade shifts, with her working afternoons and me nights. At the end of the day, that balance, figuring out the best way to run the restaurants while also making sure we do the best we can to set aside time as a family, is crucial. It all goes full circle to being able to trust those around you to run things when you aren’t around.

Photos courtesty of Anthony Tahlier

Bonus: Check out Daniel Wright's Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic video preview:

Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic: Dan Wright Spotlight from City Stories on Vimeo.

Read more articles by Benjamin Plattner.

Benjamin Plattner is a freelance writer, University of Cincinnati graduate (B.A. in Political Science) and an uber-votary of coffee, food, drink, music, travel and Cincinnati’s newfound momentum (feel free to contact him to discuss any of these things). He lives in Columbia-Tusculum with his luminous wife Ieva and their canine cohorts Violet and Clover.
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