Sunday, June 11, 2006

Conversation with Clinton

So to be honest, the real reason I signed up to help out on Second Sunday in Main in the first place was because I saw the lineup of amazing chef speakers. I’m sorry that I missed Jean-Robert in May, but was delighted to see a lecture by Chef Clinton Jones of The Palace on the program for today.

This turned out to be far from a lecture though, and much more of a conversation. The weather wasn’t great which kept attendance down, but for me it was a great chance to get a front row seat and pick the brain of a first-class chef. Clinton (yes, we’re on a first-name basis now) has only been in Cincinnati since late last year. Over the course of his thirty-year career he’s worked in New York, California, and Hawaii. He’s worked with Alan Wong. And Charlie Palmer. I’m impressed already, and this guy must be the real deal! Though I dearly love this city, I’m always a little surprised when someone like Clinton chooses to settle down in Cincinnati, but he said he loves it here, which I hope means he’s planning a good, long stay.

Most of his talk today focused on the importance of using fresh, seasonal ingredients. To prove his point he presented us with a small plate full of lettuces and raw vegetables topped with vinaigrette. He picked up the produce just yesterday from a farmer in Kentucky. All he did was wash the vegetables, plate them, and dress them with a very simple heirloom tomato vinaigrette. He encouraged us to nibble away as he spoke, just using our fingers, so we could experience first-hand the undeniably fresh taste and clean flavors. His biggest frustration with Cincinnati have been finding fresh seafood and produce, but clearly he’s making progress sourcing produce.

Clinton also spoke about using the freshest, tastiest ingredients from the point of view that it means he doesn’t have to use an abundance of cream and butter. While he believes people should savor and enjoy their meals, he also thinks that after a meal you shouldn’t leave stuffed to the gills and feeling guilty about the meal you just had. Though his waitstaff warned him not to, he significantly cut down portion sizes soon after starting at The Palace. He was also told that we’re a “meat and potatoes” town, but he’s having success selling exotic dishes like Coffee Rubbed Elk Carpaccio on his menu.

I haven’t had the chance yet to dine at The Palace since Clinton took the helm, but now I’m just dying to. We asked for his current favorites on the menu and I’d love to try them all. Hanger Steak with a Bleu Cheese Fritter that melts on top of the steak when you break it open? Wow. Whole Fried Yellowtail Snapper with Mushrooms and Chinese Longbeans? Yup, I’m there. And top it all off with a Mille Feuille containing Pistachio Mascarpone Cream and Strawberries, right in the middle of strawberry season? Well, now there’s drool coming out of my mouth.

I learned a couple of other fun facts about Clinton. Seeing as an average day at work for him is about 14 ½ hours, he said he never cooks at home (his verbatim reply to me was “never buy a house from a plumber”). Oh, and he also said he’s never been to Skyline, which I encouraged him to try.

Now that I’ve talked to him, I don’t have to have tasted his food to know that we’re so lucky to have such an accomplished, experienced chef in town. The Palace has always been good but not great, and I’m excited to see it come into its own under the direction of Chef Jones.

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