Love Letters: Cincinnati

I believe the same things that make a great restaurant make a great city: the connection between a vision and the people that carry it out, the structures that seem to rise from the mind to the sky and the progress of those who create them. Cincinnati, you are a city of creators.
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Chef David Falk, who owns and operates three restaurants as part of his Boca Restaurant Group, has lived and honed his craft at restaurants in Chicago, Rome and Florence. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Falk moved home to Cincinnati in September 2001 and opened Boca, his first restaurant. Falk lives perched above downtown in the historic Prospect Hill neighborhood.

Italianate: an architectural style familiar to Cincinnatians, to me, this word means history, it means culture and the effect of row after row of rooftops overlooking the city I have called my home for so many years now. In the mid 19th century, you were the third largest city in America teeming with breweries, meat packing plants, and soap making facilities, yarn-spinners, potters, drunks, millionaires, future presidents, and every kind of immigrant imaginable. This is the kind of city I wanted to find when I left for New York, Chicago and later Rome. I wanted to be among the romantics, the artists, the students of the good life. I spent ten years searching for something I found almost immediately upon returning. Sometimes moving forward requires going back.

I am a chef. I am a restaurateur. It's what I do and I love doing it. I believe the same things that make a great restaurant make a great city: the connection between a vision and the people that carry it out, the structures that seem to rise from the mind to the sky and the progress of those who create them. Cincinnati, you are a city of creators. Restaurants, like cities, would not exist without the tireless ones, the ones that spend every ounce of energy toiling to make them great because they believe in the vision of visionaries.

I left because I was young and bored. Bored of mediocrity, bored of sugar in tomato sauce, bored of preppy girls with perfectly-starched preppy collars. That's all changed now. You're no longer drinking your pains away with Dayton, making subtle jabs at Akron, when Lebron James was just a glimmer in Cleveland's eye.

Cincinnati, you've grown into yourself, you eat vitamins, you've visited places, famous places, places where tourists take photographs. The braces are gone, you learned about "product"; people are calling you. They want something long-term.

Yet, you contradict yourself, and damn, if that doesn't make you hot. Your soul contains multitudes, as Whitman put it. You are Findlay Market, teeming with suburbanites and urbanites, homeless and renters, bleary-eyed bachelors and bright-faced families. You are the Roebling Bridge, the singing bridge. Hit me if this sounds lame, but you are hip. You're taking less time to do your nails because you can't wait to get back to killing it.

I don't always love you in winter. Would it kill you to snow once in awhile? But sometimes you relent, covering my Prospect Hill in white and my mind leaps continents and eras to snow-bound villages of my childhood daydreams. I love you in the fall when I drive out to New Richmond and you glow all shades of red, yellow and orange. Spring reminds me why we got involved in the first place: it was a warm sunny afternoon in one of your parks or some tree-lined street, the colors in the sky matching the pinkish hue of your lips. I even love you in summer... for about a week, and then the air gets so thick you could swear you were swimming in it. All of your faces are flawed and beautiful and inspire in me the passion I felt when I first saw your skyline stretched over the river as I drove through the Cut-in-the-Hill.

I left you for other women. They did not have your warmth, your endless gratitude or that look you give me when you're ready to leave a party. I remember that I have to share you now; you're a hot commodity; the bee's knees. But you taught me humility. The bend in the river always reminds me of the smiles of my guests as they leave my restaurants. I smile back knowing that sometimes a smile says enough.

When I left, Cincinnati's food scene was largely uninspired. Although, I must admit, I've always been intoxicated by your controversial chili. This strange Greek concoction maligned by some, fiercely defended by others, nursed me through so many hangovers (and contributed to a few). But you've changed and you're so much more. The facsimile boredom has imploded leaving in its white-bread dust gloriously reformed Cincinnati cuisine. You've given hillbillies and debutants equal opportunity to expand a passion for food that would make Fernand Pointe scream, "La Grande Cuisine!"

I'm humbled. You've accepted me with open arms, embracing my many quirks and whims, supporting my ambition and allowing me to take root in your core where the iconic Maisonette once held your heart. Shepherding me back to the place where I began. We are lucky enough to have people in this city driven by the pursuit of an ideal; dedicated to doing things the right way, the slow way. There was a time when you couldn't even get a decent cup of coffee in this town. Now, I can't throw a rock without hitting some hipster with a pour-over or a chemex, but I find it increasingly difficult to start my day without a cup brewed from this "collective" passion for coffee. When I buy beef, aged by generations of butchers or slide my tongue over cold French Pot ice cream to escape your summers, I feel close to you.

It's true, you're no longer known as the "Crown Jewel of the West," bragging to St. Louis about having the second tallest building in the world, your river filled to capacity with boats and barges, but you rumble with a new greatness. I can feel it when the symphony is warming up to Sceherazade in Music Hall, a building that can stir romance in the most cold-hearted soul; that feeling of butterflies in my stomach like it's the first date. I start to see our future together, imagining what our lives will look like. Will we continue to grow together? Will you always look this good?

Cincinnati, you and I both grew and changed while I was away. You are courageous; a romantic pioneer. I think I realized just how far you had come one night this summer, our city park ablaze with lights, lights that took an army of tech engineers to achieve, lights as a gift to your many lovers, 35,000 of them squeezed together in celebration. To steal a phrase from Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, in those lights I saw our "orgiastic future." While Fitzgerald's light recedes farther and farther out of view, your light, Cincinnati, shines even brighter. You are no longer that embarrassing girlfriend I don't tell my friends about, insecure and self-conscious. You're alive and breathing in gasps of energy and I scream my love for you from the Italianate rooftops.

David Falk

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