Interview: Chef Jose Salazar

Chef Jose Salazar was born in Colombia, raised in New York and resides in Cincinnati. He will be attending and cooking at the Bourbon & Beyond music, food and drink festival in Louisville, Kentucky from September 22-23. The festival is the largest bourbon festival in the world. Salazar will be joined by fellow chef Kevin Ashworth, the duo will show why great steak might pair better with bourbon instead of red wine. Salazar talked about his roots, his love of ham and cheese sandwiches and much more. Check out The Travel Addict’s interview with chef Jose Salazar:

How did you find yourself in Cincinnati from Queens, New York?

It was very, very random. My wife and I had just had our son. He was just under a year when we moved here. Right when he was born, we weren’t sure if we wanted to raise him in New York. We thought there had to be an easier, a more tranquil place to live.

Since neither one of us had lived anywhere else, we didn’t know where to start. My first instinct was to send out some resumes. I sent some out to places on the East Coast. We thought we may move to Philly or somewhere within driving distance of New York but didn’t know where that would be.

A headhunter got my resume and called me about this job as an executive chef at a hotel, and it all sounded really, really great, but it was in Cincinnati, Ohio. I didn’t really know anything about Cincinnati so it was thanks, but no thanks. Long story short, he eventually convinced me to come out and do a tasting and then, of course, we decided to give it a shot. We thought we would only do it a couple of years. And ten years later, here we are with a couple restaurants and we aren’t planning on leaving any time soon.

If you have any advice for people coming to Cincinnati, what would you tell them to visit? What are your favorite things to do?

It is a really walkable city. I think the river is really nice. The Roebling Bridge is beautiful. It is the bridge that inspired the Brooklyn Bridge. I think Findlay Market is really cool. It is one of the oldest markets in the country. Over the Rhine, the neighborhood, the whole neighborhood, has been transformed. A decade ago it was probably considered one of the worst neighborhoods in the country and now it is so transformed in a short period of time.

It is beautiful. The architecture appealed so much to me when I got here. Walking around that neighborhood, there are so many things to do and so many things to explore. Definitely Findlay Market, I think that is a must for anybody visiting.

You have had a really good experience in Cincinnati. You have opened two very successful restaurants, Salazar and Mita’s here in town. What advice would you give any aspiring chef who is starting out opening a restaurant?

Listen to your gut. I think that is important. I feel like the media, no offense, makes it all about being new and hot and what’s different. To some degree, young restauranteurs forget that what is so wonderful and without them it would be a difficult business.

At the end of the day, the people who are coming to your restaurant are who are going to sustain you long term. I think listening to what their needs are and being attentive. That is really what our industry is all about, hospitality and being as attentive as possible.

We were down in the Over The Rhine area recently it really is a beautiful neighborhood. It did remind me of New York a little bit.

A little bit yeah. We have been told that, especially Salazar because it is tucked away on a little side street. It is a little Brooklyn-esque or Paris, depending on where people are sitting. They can kind of feel they are transported somewhere else.

You’re from Colombia, one of my favorite places to visit. I went last year for Carnivale and went all over the country. I know you spoke before in other interviews about your grandmother and spending time with her. What was your favorite dish she made growing up there?

For some reason, breakfast stands out to me. She would make big, big breakfasts. There wasn’t anything fancy. There was arepas (corn pancakes) and eggs, chicharrón (fried pork belly or pork rinds) and maybe a little fresh avocado. But the hot chocolate – she would make fresh hot chocolate by hand in an aluminum cauldron with a wood heater. Maybe it was just the whole, pomp and circumstance she did the whole hot chocolate thing. She was so nurturing and breakfast was when everyone was gathered at the same time.

Have you been back to Colombia lately?

Not lately. It has been five years or so.

It is a coincidence. Medellin and all these places used to be the worst in the world as well. They are now safe and wonderful, open to tourists. I met some of the warmest people there I have ever met. I feel like they have had a huge transformation as well.

Yeah. I am glad you had that impression. The country was definitely plagued by a lot of things that went wrong, a justifiable bad rap. The people have always been wonderful and sweet and caring and party animals. It is sad the whole world didn’t get to see that because there was so much turmoil.

What is your favorite meal or type of cuisine?

I really love Japanese food. When I can get wonderfully, beautifully cooked Japanese food. But I love a good Ham and Cheese sandwich, when you have good bread and great ham and good cheese, maybe a little bit of butter or mustard. That is my go-to. I am the biggest fan of Ham and Cheese, the best combination ever.

If we were to go to your refrigerator in your home, what is one thing we will always find?

Well, I don’t cook at home. I’m right near the fridge, so I will open it up. My wife cooks quite a bit. So there is always orange juice, eggs, milk, yogurt. As far as cooking, your typical stuff. There is a nice array of fruits and vegetables. My wife cooks. She shops in small quantities. She cooks 98% of the meals in my house.

What dish would you consider your guilty pleasure?

I don’t know. Nothing really makes me feel guilty.

You are going to be a featured chef at Bourbon and Beyond. What are you looking forward to most participating in at the festival?

I did it last year and it was a blast. It was one of my favorite events ever. The music for sure – there are so many wonderful acts. Then, of course, all the bourbon and rye, you know the combination of those two.

And then the collaborating with other chefs, that is a huge event for me because I don’t get a lot of time to travel and I work a lot. Getting away to these events is cool to meet and work with other chefs. That is one of the things I look forward to the most.

What is your favorite bourbon?

Probably Angel’s Envy. I like their rye even more than their bourbon.

Angel’s Envy is a great place to go in Louisville to visit, just to go to the actual distillery is a cool place.

That is what I have heard. I have not been able to make it there.

What is the oddest thing you have ever eaten when traveling?

Probably bugs in Mexico, a lot of different kinds of bugs. They were actually really good. A little odd but tasty.

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