Ryan Santos, an Ohio native and largely self-taught chef, has opened his first-ever restaurant: Please, a 30-seat establishment in Cincinnati focused on local produce and inventive dishes. In doing so, he is emerging as one of the leading creative talents in the city’s cultural renaissance.
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Dwell: You went to school for graphic design and then decided you’d rather be a chef. You rose in the ranks of the restaurant scene in Cleveland, then departed for Europe for two years to train in Copenhagen. You then chose to return to Ohio, where you launched a successful series of pop-up dinner parties. When did it occur to you that you might like to open your own restaurant?
Ryan Santos: It’s funny. One of my sous chefs asked me, "How do you know when you’re ready?" There were nights when I thought I was ready, and then I’d have another night where I definitely wasn’t. My last part-time job was in Virginia, working for John Shields, a chef who went on to open Smyth, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. He was a mentor to me. The combination of creating successful pop-ups, my travels in Europe, and my time working for him kind of connected. It was like, "Okay, I’m ready."
Dwell: Why Cincinnati? You could have gone anywhere.
Santos: It really clicked when I saw the available spaces in Cincinnati, especially in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood downtown. Just really old, historic, beautiful structures that reflected the size and flow of restaurants I’d seen in my travels in Europe. I realized that the style and layouts of the restaurants I loved there could also work here.
Dwell: You maintain a garden right in the middle of downtown, in between a few derelict buildings. How did that come to be?
Santos: An acquaintance was managing it, but his projects took him elsewhere, so the garden was sitting underutilized. I reached out to him and wrote a proposal. It’s great to be able to walk half a block and go pull weeds or pick vegetables, just to clear my mind.Having the garden is a really inspirational force for the kitchen. Cooks make a garden run every day—if we’re looking for inspiration for a dish or a final layer, it’s there. Now we have a great larder of pickles and preserves, things we constantly pull into dishes. We just found out it will be around next year, so the cooks are game-planning what to plant.
Dwell: You also do many foraging trips in the area. How did you learn to identify edible plants?
Santos: It all began when I worked in Copenhagen, where the chefs really relied upon the practice. One of the restaurants, Kadeau, is located on an island, and they grow or forage everything they use there. Foraging is one of those things that you can read and study about, but until you have somebody who takes you out and shows you the indescribable differences in some things or how to spot them . . . . I just watched how they went about it and saw that many of the things that grew there also grew here.
Dwell: Do you take your team out with you to teach and pass along the knowledge?
Santos: I do. Some come with knowledge of their own.
Dwell: You went to school for graphic design but chose to become a chef instead. Why?
Santos: I never stopped wanting to design. It just became more of a hobby. In creating the vision of the restaurant, I had my hands in designing the menu and the space, which was a new thing for me, to think in the three dimensions of an environment. I use the techniques and skills that I learned in design school about the use of color and composition and apply them to how we think of plates and food and dishes. I try to create an open environment, just like in design school, in the sense that anyone, no matter their skill level, can pitch ideas.
Dwell: Can you describe the state of the building when you came upon it?
Santos: It had been empty for decades. The windows were all boarded up. There were parts of the floor that were nonexistent. We were lucky there wasn’t any roof damage, which meant there was no water damage in the building. Almost all the original woodwork that was in the space was completely intact. While it is weathered, it’s completely intact. We tried to respect the historic, run-down, original part of the building, while layering in newer things to create a space that felt personal and authentic to the neighborhood.
Dwell: You had to excavate the dirt floor of the basement to accommodate storage. Sounds challenging.
Santos: We knew we were going to need more space, so we dropped the floor by about eight inches, working through a hole we cut in the floor above. We kept all the original wood panels and kind of reengineered it and restructured it. Also, the staircase is historic, so we couldn’t touch it, and it’s not even 36 inches wide. We dropped an electric bobcat into the basement to dig it out. It was an incredible sight.