THE ONLY SOUND in the kitchen comes from a deft knife breaking through a line of celery stalks. Crack-crack-crack-crack. It’s 3:00 p.m. on a hot Saturday afternoon and Julie Francis is just warming up. There are two prep cooks circling around her but all three of them are quiet. Standing in her T-shaped kitchen, her hands move unconsciously. She’ll soon use the celery in a fish stock made from freshly delivered Pacific halibut. For now, there is only silence. Silence broken by the brilliant staccado of chopping vegetables.
Francis is wearing a chef’s coat with both sleeves rolled up mid-forearm. Striped black pants just miss the tops of her rubber shoes. As if she is held together by a tight string, her range of motion is narrow, her movements calculated. “It’s not always this quiet,” one of the prep cooks offers. It can get crazy when we’re really busy.” I look to Francis for confirmation. Her serious features have reorganized. She is smiling openly, genuinely, honestly.
Watching the ease with which she prepare a stack of fiddlehead ferns, I almost become convinced that this life is easy for her. Almost. But her broken-in rubber shoes tell a different story. They tell the story of a woman who has worked behind the line for over 20 years. A woman who bares the joy and the anguish of owning and cooking for one of Cincinnati’s most highly regarded restaurants.
“The color is actually called Golden Retriever,” she tells me. She is referring to the mustard washed-walls in the dining room. More than once in the media, Nectar’s ambiance has been described as being sparse, but this description confounds Francis, who is not as much annoyed as she is genuinely mystified. She spent the early part of her career working in the country’s Southwest and most of the room’s nuances reflect that experience. She hand-laid the Mexican-inspired talavera tilework inside of the nichos (recessed walls in Southwestern architecture). Spanish-style wooden beams, called vigas, line the ceiling, studded with capsules of light.
“I could have loaded the place up with stuff from T.J. Maxx but I feel like the experience here should really be about eating,” she says. It’s hard to argue with her sensibilities. Like her food, they usually teeter on the edge of soft refrain and articulate brilliance.
“When Nectar opened, people couldn’t get over the fact that I wasn’t using white tablecloths,” she says. “But this isn’t a fine dining restaurant. In a way, that’s our biggest misnomer. We don’t pour soup in a terrine at the table. We don’t have wines you need to decant. Look at the prices, look at the way the servers are dressed. Maybe we’re put in that category because of the food, I’m not sure.”
IF IT’S NOT A FINE DINING experience then what is it? If there is a pattern on Nectar’s menu, it comes from Francis’ deep-seated locavorian philosophy. Separated into a small collection of starters and entrées, each dish is a tribute to Greater Cincinnati’s vibrant agricultural belt. Many of the components come from her weekly trips to Turner Farm, Greenacres Farm and Findlay Market. Along with other local vendors, one of her major suppliers is farmer-turned-celebrity, Sallie Ransohoff, who rolls up to the restaurant, lifts the back door of her truck, and lets Francis hand select just-picked ingredients.
But don’t confuse her farm-to-table philosophy with a disingenuous attempt to fill a trendy, green market. Purity on the plate has been her ace-in-the-hole for years. Even before the local food phenomenon really caught wind in Cincinnati, she was the owner and chef of Aioli Bistro (her first restaurant) downtown with a similar passion for local ingredients. Aioli achieved critical success but Francis says that it never attracted a consistent crowd. “We relied on a lot of out-of-town traffic back then,” she says, “and I’d get motorcycle convention groups or travelers that came because of proximity, not because of the kind of food that I did.” That was a decade ago. Things are different now. Nectar Restaurant is Aioli reconsidered, reenergized and reincarnated. Cleverly placed in the serene neighborhood of Mount Lookout, diners are now mostly locals and faithful Francis followers.
Still, to paraphrase her culinary style––to call it seasonal and local––is to miss the complexities that exist, the cultural and geographical nuances she brings to the plate from living out west. Achiote-rubbed chicken with a hot and sour punch of tomatillo chipotle isn’t just a recipe she created; it’s a map of her life.
After being raised in Cincinnati (and attending the Seven Hills school district), Francis moved to Arizona to pursue a photography degree. But life after graduation offered a halting reality check. Her artistic lens––her abstract way of framing the world––couldn’t cut it in a paycheck-writing, commercial industry. Supporting her art, she says, would have required more money, more time, maybe another degree, maybe a teaching position.
“In the meantime, I started waiting tables,” she remembers. “I was really bad at it, though. I thought to myself, “I’d really much rather cook.” So, Francis, who acquired a love of food and wine from her parents (her father earned the title of Mr. Gourmet in the Society of Bacchus) got her first kitchen job as a salad prep cook in a small Denver restaurant.
AFTER SEEING THE WAY a knife moves in her hand like an extension of her own arm, I know the following to be true: Francis’ story isn’t one of improbability, it’s one of inevitability. That she never sought power or limelight, that she never asked for this kind of attention along the way, that’s just coincidence. Of chefs of another kind, she says this: I’ve understood for a long time that there’s ego and there’s a pecking order.”
It was a lesson she first learned in the urban sprawl of the Santa Fé desert, surrounded by tourists and mountains and hanging meat. Francis had taken a job as the in-house butcher at the venerable Coyote Café. Hired by Mark Miller (often called the Father of Southwestern Cuisine), she was one of the establishment’s only women. For eight bucks an hour and for eight hours a day, her job was to swing a meat cleaver at an endless succession of chicken carcasses. “I wanted to be a line cook,” she tells me. “But they wouldn’t let me do anything else except make hollandaise.”
Eventually, this dissatisfaction urged her to pursue a job on the line elsewhere. But the experience and prestige of having worked at Coyote Café laid the foundation for a slew of new restaurant opportunities (including several bistros and a stint at the famed Montrachet in New York City). During this long span of tireless but passionate cooking, Francis refined her technical mastery, developed a broad understanding of international cuisine and learned to capitalize on local, seasonal ingredients.
More than twenty years later, with hindsight and a cozy, neighborhood restaurant thriving, she offers this in the way of describing her culinary perspective:
“I don’t look at what other chefs do for inspiration as much anymore. I might look at their pricing but their dishes are their own personal expressions. What inspires me are ingredients.”
And this: “The creative process of cooking is still my favorite part. Owning a restaurant is hard physical work; there are long hours and lots of different mental tasks. At the end of the day, I feel like I have accomplished something meaningful here.”
And of coming back to Cincinnati, this: “I had this crazy idea to open my own restaurant. I wanted to have the kind of place here that worked out West: chef-owned, creative and artistic.”
THE FAT SILVER MOON is now shining through Nectar Restaurant’s window. Servers, dressed in head-to-toe black scan the room like gazelles waiting for their next move. Maroon napkins are draped over knees. Crystal glasses twinkle in low light. Organic chicken liver mousse is dropped off to a pair of women at one end of the busy room. Their eyes follow the plate, which is at first dangled over them like a chew toy and then carefully placed between them. A hum of approval follows.
Through a window leading to the restaurant’s kitchen, I watch Chef Julie Francis reach for a sauté pan, turn on her heal and face the dining room. For a split second, she looks back out at us: resolved, calm, quiet. “We are bigger than her now,” I think to myself. “We outnumber her.” But somehow, from my table in the back corner, I know that we fit in the palm of her hand.