In the kitchen with Todd Kelly: Hilton Netherland Plaza chef is all in for perfection & progression

CINCINNATI - Todd Kelly may well be the bee whisperer among chefs in Cincinnati. He knows how to split a colony, understands how bees "beard" to keep cool in summer, and how they huddle into a ball to keep warm in winter. When the time is right, he doesn't hesitate to suit up and harvest the golden crop.

Kelly is Executive Chef, and Food and Beverage Director at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. When he's not busy winning accolades for the hotel's restaurant, bar and banquet operations--which incidentally, comes with a staff of 170--he dons his many other hats:  beekeeper, farmer, and even cheese maker.

PHOTOS: Orchids at Palm Court serves dishes made from local ingredients

To be sure, Kelly is a prolific and accomplished chef; his string of awards and even a cookbook prove that. When he talks about food, it is as though his words are constantly playing catch-up with his racing creative energy. 

When Kelly was 12, his father wanted to "stop and smell the roses," so he picked up the whole family, and moved to the island of Mauritius in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Originally from Long Island, New York, Kelly quickly found life on the island to be quite different. 

"You burned your trash, and fishermen walked through the back of your house to sell their catch," he said. 

Familiar American food like pizza, Oreo cookies and burgers were conspicuously absent, prompting Kelly to try his hand at cooking. 

"One of the first things my brother and I made was French fries. There were no fries, but we had potatoes and we had oil. So we made our own fries," he said. This make-it-yourself approach would stay ingrained in Kelly into his adult life.

After a few years, the Kelly family moved back to the United States. At 17, he got a job at a restaurant--peeling potatoes.

"My brother, who was going to culinary school, got me this job. He warned me 'you're going to get 10 cases of potatoes and you're going to peel potatoes all day. But just do them faster than everybody else, and you'll be fine,'" Kelly said.

Kelly's speed got him the next job: cutting mushrooms. He came close to losing a few finger tips. 

"I didn't know how to use a knife," he said. His brother eventually gave him the proper tools: a chef's knife and a paring knife. 

"He told me that this would be a good start."

After graduating high school in Lancaster, Penn., Kelly branched out to Pittsburgh where some of his friends were going to culinary school. Instead of following suit, he took a job at a fine dining restaurant. His mastery in potato peeling made him a shoo-in. 

"I found out pretty quickly if you have skills, people will hire you."

As Kelly briskly moved up the ranks, he realized that his culinary school friends were only getting entry level jobs, jobs he had already done. 

"My friends graduating from culinary school were working as bussers and servers. They could not get good jobs," he said. Kelly figured out that his work experience had put him ahead of the curve. 

He moved on to Charlotte, N.C., to continue his work in restaurants. 

"That's when it got serious," he said. "I was in my young twenties and making good money." 

What started out as a job became a career in Charlotte.

Kelly took his career to the next level when he worked at the award-wining restaurant, Rubicon, in San Francisco. He worked for the famed chef, Dennis Leary, who instilled in him lifelong habits of fresh daily cooking and conservation.

In 2006, Kelly moved to the Tri-State to become the chef-de-cuisine at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. Not surprisingly, he became the executive chef in only eight months.

When Kelly is not working at the Hilton, he works on his farm in Batavia. He seamlessly transfers his agricultural knowledge, including beekeeping, to the Hilton rooftop. Thirty stories above downtown Cincinnati, Kelly has mastered the finer points of urban beekeeping.

He also has a vibrant herb garden on the rooftop, lush with herbs like rosemary, tarragon and basil. 
"If I'm going to do it, I'm going to be all in."

Food and cooking philosophy

"What is important to me is the discipline. We don't need the best cooks; we'll make the best cooks.  When we dice shallots, chop chives, sear meat or poach fish, we do them in a very specific way. There are no variables. I want someone who can follow directions, and do the same techniques over and over."

Kelly is a staunch believer in proper progression. 

"When you peel potatoes faster than the next guy, then you get to do the next job," he said. He has seen how some young cooks today want to do the big jobs, like searing foie gras, or butchering the pig--yet they don't know how to properly dice shallots or clean a tenderloin. 

"You need to start small and expand."

Kelly's menu follows the changing seasons closely, only offering seasonal ingredients when they are at their peak quality. 

"Our ingredients are hyper-seasonal. We have things that can be on the menu for only two days," he said, referring to a particular wild baby white asparagus

from France. Only six pounds were imported into this country, and Kelly got two of them.

"We got one delivery, one time, and it was on the menu for 2 days,” he said.

In a large and busy place like the Hilton, Kelly sometimes feels like he's playing chess. 

"I'm constantly moving, adapting and developing people,” he said. “You never quite win the game, but what I really enjoy about being a chef in a place like this, is the opportunity to grow the people and operation."

Orchids at Palm Court  at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza
35 West Fifth Street, Cincinnati. Tel. (513) 421-9100 ‎

Todd Kelly's essential ingredients & tools

  • Sharp knives. Kelly's go-to is the MAC 6" utility knife. He can still hear his old chef's lesson about always using a sharp knife: "We slice chives, we don't smash them." 
  • Spatulas
  • Vitamix blender
  • Robot Coupe food processor
  • Immersion blender
  • Pacojet, for that perfect consistency in sorbets, mousses and quenelles.
  • Salt. Kelly uses Diamond Crystal kosher salt for seasoning, and a couple of different finishing salts: Maldon sea salt and Murray River pink sea salt.
  • Verjus and vinegars. Kelly favors balsamic vinegar in summer, and late harvest grape vinegars in winter. He also has a thing for lemon vinaigrette, particularly for finishing dishes.

While not strictly a must-have, Kelly professes his love for togarashi, the peppy Japanese spice blend. 

"I just love it," he said, with a sparkle in his eye. 

Inspirations

The feeling of having touched perfection drives Kelly. He describes this feeling with the simple example of a perfectly roasted piece of meat. When sliced, the blood oozes, but stops short of bleeding out from the meat. 

"When I see that, it makes me smile. You've cooked the meat perfectly," Kelly said. "That's my goal: to have things perfect every single time."

Inspiration is everywhere, and very much in the moment for Kelly. Take the time he went running with his kitchen compatriots around Lunken Airport. 

"We were running when all of a sudden, we saw purple all over the ground. We looked up, and there were boysenberry trees everywhere." 

He and his cohorts immediately switched gears, and picked boysenberries for two hours instead. 

The rich history of the Hilton Netherland is a constant source of inspiration. Every picture that peeks out of the many halls and corridors sweeps Kelly back to the historical grandeur of the hotel that began in the 1930s. 

"Look at the chef," Kelly said, pointing to an 80-year-old photograph. "Look at the whole poached salmon, tallow pigs, and all that silver." 

Kelly's culinary team inspires him to keep learning and teaching. 

"I want to keep it interesting for them," he said. This year alone, he's harvested 20 gallons of honey from the rooftop bee colony.

Kelly has been honing his vinegar production skills as well. 

"If we're successful, we can shoot for 100 percent utilization of our wines," he said, referring to the often-wasted partially leftovers.

That's not all. Kelly started making cheese on-site, and turned the walk-in refrigerator on the fifth floor into one big "cheese cave."  His young cooks are not only learning technical lessons of food and discipline, they are also learning life lessons. 

"When someone has to go up to the sixteenth floor and cut herbs for themselves, they're going to make sure they cut and wrap them properly. They're going to respect it more."

Favorite meal to cook at home: Creamy Cheese Ravioli with Shrimp and Bacon

When Kelly is on the job, he creates pristine and sophisticated food. At home, he downshifts to simpler meals.   

Ingredients

  • 1 lb  cheese ravioli
  • 3 each  garlic cloves
  • 16 each  16/20 Shrimp
  • 1 lb  spinach
  • 8 oz  bacon
  • 1 cup  heavy cream
  • 3 oz  Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Boil ravioli and reserve warm. Small- dice bacon and render in a large skillet. Once crispy, add the shrimp and cook through.
  2. Remove shrimp and add the ravioli, garlic, and brown lightly.
  3. Then add cream and bring to a boil.
  4. Add spinach and cooked shrimp.
  5. Finish with parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper. 

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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