By Grace S. Yek
Peel away the cuisine and accolades, and you have an introspective man who finds it difficult to talk about himself. That awkwardness was on display when I asked Ryan Santos to describe himself. “I have no idea how to do that,” came the muffled reply, as he grinned and blushed.
As the chef and owner of the acclaimed Please in Over-the-Rhine, Santos carries the kind of culinary swagger many chefs can only aspire to. But he’s too polite to talk about it. Even the name of his restaurant, Please, channels his thoughtful and polite personality.
“I think very few chefs can look at food the way Ryan does,” said Daniel Wright. “His dishes are stunning and delicious.” That’s high praise, coming from straight-talking Wright, the chef and owner of Senate, Abigail Street and Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ restaurants.
Even at just a year old, Please has grabbed the attention of national media such as Food & Wine Magazine, Dwell and Bon Appetit. Locally, many diners and food arbiters can’t stop talking about Santos’s brilliant use of seasonal and locally grown foods. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently named Please the Best Restaurant of 2017.
José Salazar, chef and owner of Salazar and Mita’s, describes Santos’ cuisine as “highly creative.” “He combines unorthodox flavors and techniques with a modern aesthetic, and at the same time, uses Old World methods and inspirations such as fermenting and foraging.”
Santos is as nimble with the use of unexpected ingredients like fig leaves and cherry blossom sprinkles as he is with the layering of flavors using traditional preservation and fermentation methods. For example, he salts his food with turnip brine rather than run-of-the-mill salt.
“One big thing we try not to do is follow a typical format of a dish,” he explained. “We try to do original dishes instead of modifications or variations.” Santos usually begins with an ingredient or flavor combination, then allows the dish to evolve. The chef likes to showcase vegetables as the main course, not simply relegate them to the role of sidekicks. He often uses meat to accentuate the vegetables, instead of the other way around.
Santos’ path to “chefdom” was fueled by necessity. Born and raised in Akron, he grew up in a “traditional Midwest” home where his mother did the cooking. His is not the familiar chef’s tale of learning to cook at his mother’s knee. “I never cooked until my second year in college,” he said.
He learned because he had to. Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a young teenager, Santos got sick when he was in his late teens. “The doctor put me on a very restrictive diet of no dairy, gluten, sugar and alcohol,” he said. He learned to make food from scratch, down to items we often take for granted, such as salad dressings. “I thought graphic design was going to be the job, and food the hobby. But they quickly switched places.”
The necessity of cooking turned into a love affair. By the end of his second year as a graphic design student at the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP, he knew he would be cooking for a living. “I thought graphic design was going to be the job, and food the hobby. But they quickly switched places,” Santos recalled.
After graduating in 2005, he worked in graphic design three months before jumping headlong into the world of food. He cut his teeth at restaurants that spanned Cleveland, San Francisco and Portland. He even went across the pond and trained in France and Denmark, including at the Michelin-starred Relae in Copenhagen.
Then his pop-up restaurant, Please, kept him busy for four years. Santos earned street credit among his chef peers as he created exquisite dinner spreads at venues that ranged from local farms to high-profile restaurants in Greater Cincinnati. The pop-up restaurant ultimately led to the permanent location in Over-the-Rhine in November 2016.
After we talked for a while, Santos finally offered two words to describe himself: passionate and compassionate. Both traits share a common beginning – Santos’s struggle with Crohn’s disease.
Not only did the disease lead him to find his passion for cooking, it’s shaped him as a restaurateur. “We’re super-receptive to people with dietary restrictions,” Santos said.
A vegan tasting menu at Please holds its own against other menu choices. Dishes that meet dietary restrictions are never an afterthought. The chef also has cultivated an empathetic culture at the restaurant, and his staff is at-the-ready to create a top-notch dining experience for everyone.
Outside of the restaurant, you’ll likely find Santos at home with his two dogs. “I’m actually a homebody,” he said. “I cook at home for myself a lot. I don’t really go out to eat.”
In the span of 15 years, Santos has come full circle. He’s still cooking for himself, except now he’s an established chef with his own restaurant.
By his own measure, Santos has achieved success. He is taking his success in stride and with a good deal of introspection. “I don’t think you get into the restaurant industry if your motivation is money,” he said. “Success is, for me, people supporting us, and I get to do what I love to do.”
Grace Yek is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation and a former chemical engineer with a master’s degree. She is a contributing food writer for WCPO and food editor for Polly Magazine. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.