A Nomad Comes Home: A Conversation with Cincinnati Chef Ryan Santos
In a culinary scene obsessed with bold flavor and brash personalities, you might not think the word “polite” is the biggest compliment you could give to a dish. But when the chef who made that dish is a Midwestern boy who’s ventured home after roaming the world in search of flavors his hometown might love, that invitation starts to sound appealing.
As chef of Cincinnati’s acclaimed Please, Ryan Santos creates food that invites you in with a hint of middle-America-nice and the soft-spoken comfort of approachable, deeply familiar ingredients. But there’s a subtle complexity to Santos’ food, too—and that’s what keeps diners asking for more, whether or not they mind their manners.
You took an unconventional path to becoming a chef. Tell us how you made your way into the food industry.
I was going to college for graphic design—I definitely thought that was going to be my path—when I discovered I’d been battling Crohn’s disease for years without knowing it. My doctor put me on a strict diet, so I learned to cook for myself quickly. I took my new diet very seriously, and through the process of becoming a home chef, I just sort of fell in love with it. Those restrictions eventually went away, but my passion for cooking stuck around.
But your next step wasn’t culinary school. Why did you decide to get your education just by working in kitchens around the world, rather than in a more formal environment?
I think I was just chasing experiences, honestly. I was lucky to end up in locations all around the world that had the same sort of crayon box of ingredients that I’d had back home in Ohio—I definitely didn’t want to go to, say, South America and work with ingredients I’d never have access to again—but rather somewhere that would still push me on my technique, still help me discover something new. I ended up in Denmark, France, Pittsburgh, L.A.—all working with chefs I admired.
But then I came back for a visit to Cincinnati, and I was so impressed. So much of the city had changed and progressed. An old friend of mine said, “Hey, you should put together a pop-up dinner. I know a restaurant that would love to have you.” Pretty soon we were doing it again and again, and I had moved back home.[Laughs]. Things progressed from there.
In a way, you were still pretty nomadic even when you returned to Cincinnati. What did you learn from your years of running Please as a pop-up restaurant?
It was a good opportunity to learn the Cincinnati palate again: learning who our diners were, what their level of adventurousness was in terms of food.
As we changed neighborhoods with each pop-up, we’d see different clientele, and we’d gain a bit more of a regular presence as well. It helped me hone the food of the restaurant—what worked and what didn’t, what my guests were comfortable with, and where it might be okay to make them a little uncomfortable. It helped me hone my own voice as a chef, too.
Why’d you choose the name “Please”?
I wanted to do something food-adjacent and not too literal. It hits on an aspect of being a diner—you say “please” when you order a certain dish; service aims to please—but I think the word also harnesses a little bit of that classic sense of Midwestern nice, too. I’ll be honest: some of the restaurants I worked in during my pop-up years felt a little pretentious, a little like you were being judged if you didn’t get it; even I felt uncomfortable there. I wanted my food to feel comfortable, inviting and polite, in that way.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the Black Hawk Beef dish you made for us.
Honestly, Please had never really done a steak dish before I made this. So after a while, it felt like I needed to take that challenge, just for my own growth and maturity as a chef. It’s a really ingredients-focused recipe. We work with a farm over in Kentucky that makes a beautiful beef; we have a local winter spinach leaf that’s the foundation of our take on creamed spinach. It’s all pretty clean and simple, but it has some personality.
We switch out the butter for bone marrow. We add some ramps—those are everywhere in Cincinnati—and some really nice local peas, chive blossoms and microgreens. It comes together as a lighter steak dish that’s still really rich. And it came together on the first go, which is always really rewarding as a chef, not having to tinker and tinker and tinker.
All photography by Attilio D’Agostino. This story originally appeared in ALIVE Magazine Issue Three. Order a copy or subscribe to ALIVE at alivemag.com/subscribe.