Interview with Chef Todd Kelly of Orchids at Palm Court

March 16, 2010

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You could argue — pretty convincingly — that TODD KELLY is exactly like you. He likes to guzzle a cold brewsky and he makes pizza at home with his kids. Hell, he even stresses about whether or not his lawnmower needs oil. As it turns out, he’s an every day, quintessential, dime-a-dozen Joe. Except for one tiny, little thing — he’s the Executive Chef at Orchids at Palm Court, one of Cincinnati’s most celebrated restaurants.

KELLY’S DINING ROOM resides under mural painted ceilings. He is surrounded on a daily basis by gold embellished walls and commands one of the most intensely scrutinized restaurant kitchens in the city. He has been awarded the Presidential Medallion by the American Culinary Federation, has earned his restaurant five stars from the Cincinnati Enquirer and has secured its number one spot in Cincinnati Magazine’s “Top Ten Restaurants” for the past two years. There is no doubt, at 34, Kelly has achieved remarkable success. And back in the Orchids’ kitchen, he shows no sign of slowing down.

I watch him as he multitasks between a sauté of hericot verts and another of veal sweetbreads. It won’t be long before the two components find their way together in blissful flavor harmony, but for now, their fate lingers delicately in his busy hands. The air swirling around us is thick and as I stand, squeezed between a cook handling hot grease on the left and a massive range spewing blazing heat on the right, I feel my face turn a gentle shade of red. “This is nothing,” Kelly says with sweat sparkling on his forehead. “The one upstairs is even hotter.” He is referring, of course, to the triple sized, souped-up kitchen on the next level — the one that makes this one feel like a room in a dollhouse.

His movements are relaxed and fluid and as he pours liquid into a pan of seared tuna, flames erupt briefly but gloriously before us. We talk about the people that we know in common, he cracks several jokes and I am all at once struck by his appealing ordinariness. He seems to shatter every stereotype of modern chefs I have seen on television — the self-confessed, depraved inebriants like Anthony Bourdain and the ego-inflated narcissists a la Gordon Ramsay. Instead of buying into the celebrity of his profession, Kelly really is remarkably ordinary.

MAYBE YOU’VE RUN alongside him in the Flying Pig Marathon or have seen him hitting the pavement around Lunken Airport. “Running is my own way of meditating,” he says. “Five miles in, I’m not thinking about whether or not the salmon will come in right, I’m thinking about the color of the grass.” His love of running started a while back and intensified after he completed his first marathon. Crossing the finish line, he says, elicited the same, once-in-a-lifetime euphoria as holding his baby girl for the first time. “It brought a tear to my eye,” he remembers. And he’s been hooked ever since.

No doubt his daughters, aged two and four, are another grounding force in his life. There’s nothing quite so humbling for a chef at the top of his game than the act of squealing in high-pitched tones, “Look how pretty blue!” when trying to persuade a four-year old to eat bleu cheese. “The girls don’t like anything with black specs in it,” he says. “They don’t like green food, either. And if one of them doesn’t like something, the other will decide they don’t like it.” But kids with undeveloped palettes are certainly nothing new to the American family. And neither is dinner at the Kelly household.

“I call my wife the Meat Queen,” he says laughing. “She makes a lot of tacos and hamburgers.” As I watch Kelly, deep in the belly of his kitchen flip offals in a pan, I am delighted in the mental image of him confronting a sloppy joe sandwich. But this is the the thing about Kelly. There’s something markedly down-to-earth about him — something that makes you feel he’d just as soon throw back a bottle of suds than orchestrate a high-end, five star dining experience.

He’s certainly not above chowing down on some pizza — at least, not when he prepares it himself. “There’s nothing better than bread, pan fried in olive oil, topped with good quality cheese and herbs with the right profile,” he says. “The crust has to have the right snap and chew, and the sauce should be slightly tart.” Kelly may be known for being clever with exotic ingredients — as a mad-scientist with a sixth sense for combining flavor — but rooted in his razzle-dazzle is a respect for simple ingredients. And nowhere is this more apparent than in his transcendent description of bread, cheese and tomato sauce.

THERE IS ONE PEDESTRIAN MEAL, however, for which Kelly admits to harboring a great disdain. It’s both surprising and amusing to me that the dish is Thanksgiving turkey prepared by his mother. “I hated my mother’s cooking growing up,” he tells me. We laugh at the sharpness and irony in his statement. Most chefs of his stature are armed with an obligatory, tender tale of how they learned to cook standing at their mother’s knee. But Kelly, in his candid charm, makes no effort to deny his Thanksgiving struggles with dried out turkey, lumpy gravy and canned vegetables. “I’ll bet Thomas Keller never eats canned green beans,” he laughs.

But I admire the gusto of a woman, who despite having two professional chef sons, continues, by God, to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe she doesn’t have a natural affinity for the craft of cooking or maybe she’s just accepted that all food not prepared by Kelly will be cast in an indelible shaddow. Maybe that’s a tough pill to swollow for a mom who used to change his diapers. Either way, I get it.

And so I ask him if he has any home cooking techniques to offer. He pauses. “People spend a lot of money on organic lettuce and then they buy meat with no fat or flavor.” He says this with disbelief, as if he might liken these same people to the ones who still believe the earth is flat. Kelly explains that when he shops for groceries at Kroger or at Eckerlin Meats to stock his East side home, he looks for prime meat with a lot of marbling. “At the restaurant, I leave a full eight-inches of fat around a New York Strip and then I cut it off before
serving.”

His culinary suggestion is appreciated but we’re both aware as he’s speaking that it’s completely perfunctory. No one can teach a person to cook in a matter of words. Cooking on his level is a deeply nurtured skill and an obsession that rides on a constant, if not slightly masochistic, need to demonstrate perfection. It’s the kind of passion and commitment to quality that makes a chef of his stature a high commodity on the restaurant market.

WHEN THE GENERAL MANAGER of Hilton Cincinnati, Michel Sheer, was on the lookout for a new Executive Chef for Orchids, Todd Kelly was at the top of the list. Despite frequent phone calls to his North Carolina home, Kelly was uninterested in relocating. He was already happy as Chef de Cusine of Ember Grille in Charlotte, where he was winning awards and being recognized in the culinary scene. But then something unexpected happened. Sheer flew Kelly to Cincinnati to see the elaborate restaurant-space first-hand. “I saw Orchids as a blank canvas,” Kelly told me. “It just needed someone to come paint on the walls.” Even so, it took some proding to get his suitcases packed for good. “Negotiations lasted a long time,” he admits. It was a tug of war that eventually Sheer won in 2006 when Kelly, who saw Orchids at Palm Court as an opportunity to exercise his full creative vision, finally signed on the dotted line.

Today, diners in the lavish Palm Court restaurant are not only eating from a menu that Kelly designed, but they are eating off china that he hand selected. They are also nibbling bread he picked out and are sipping wine that he chose out of glasses that he designated. Virtually everything from the verbiage used on the phone to the way the restaurant is serviced has been deliberated and directed by Todd Kelly. The result is a dining experience that feels distinctly grande and effortlessly luxurious.

One bite into the lobster salad and this notion will prove to be true for you. With the prongs of a metal fork, crack through a frilly, fried tempura batter into a poached egg. The yolk, which will dispell a savory, yellow goodness into a molded circle of lobster, will swirl with the white cavier cream sauce applied to the top of the salad by your waiter. You will see, in a dish that is as much performance art as it is culinary mastery, why ordinary men are capable of extraordinary achievement.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Elyse March 16, 2010 at 8:30 am

Wow. That article was so well written and just blew me away. You paint an incredible picture of this man, and I had to compliment you on your style and depth of the article! I would LOVE to see more like this.

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Courtney March 16, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Thanks for reading! I had a lot of fun putting that together and definitely have some more things brewing!

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dc March 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Very well written Courtney. You captured Chef Kelly in a way that shows why he is a world class chef, and – with a stellar team – why Orchids is a world class dining experience.

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Courtney March 17, 2010 at 5:28 am

World class is right. I didn’t even mention Pastry Chef Kat Kessler in the article … that’s a whole different story.

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Nathan March 17, 2010 at 8:03 am

Your article did such a great job of capturing the essence behind Todd and the Orchids. It’s what I love about it, food and dining: the experience. Awesome, Courtney, just awesome.

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MarkSpizer May 2, 2010 at 3:34 am

great post as usual!

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