Tableside with Kayla Robison, Executive Chef at Arnold’s Bar and Grill

The former top chef at Nation steps into the executive chef role at Arnold’s Bar and Grill, Cincinnati’s longest continuously operating pub.
What is your culinary background?
I’ve been in the industry since I was 14. I started out at this buffet in my hometown (Grand Forks, N.D.), where I was hired on as a coffee-pourer girl, and I asked my boss at the time if I could work in the back of house, because they looked like they were having a lot of fun. He said, “Girls don’t work in the back of house.” He made a bet with me and said, “If you can handle bussing and washing dishes, I’ll put you in the back.” So then I did that and started working in the back when I was about 15. I moved to Cincinnati when I was 20, working at restaurants all throughout that time. I moved here to go to the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State.
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Illustration by Chris Danger

Was a leadership role at one of the city’s historical institutions intimidating?
It wasn’t really intimidating, but exciting and inspiring. This place has been able to hold its own reputation for so long, and it’s been an exciting, honoring experience to be able to come in here and flip the menu and kind of redirect the restaurant scene here.
What’s your vision for Arnold’s?
It’s pretty simple. Just going back to the basics and taking something like pub food and making it, I hate the term “upscale,” but as one of my friends puts it, it’s time to take the box cutters out of your chef’s hands and give them back their knives. It’s not necessarily using food that was frozen and thrown in a fryer. Let’s get it back to its natural roots and do something special with it. Chicken wings instead of having frozen chicken and throwing it in a fryer and seasoning it. Here we brine our chicken wings for 24 hours and do our own seasoning blend, versus other places that just throw some sauce on it. Something like a burger and getting beef from a local vendor. We’ve partnered with Avril-Bleh, who has custom-blended a beef for us, and just getting back to the importance of supporting local vendors and shopping locally and knowing where food comes from, as opposed to it coming off a truck frozen.
How do you communicate the shift toward fresher, local ingredients to customers?
Training our staff, but also on our menu saying, “Proudly using Avril-Bleh’s beef and Sixteen Bricks buns.” And also encouraging our staff here to be a part of it, and they’re excited. If your staff is excited about the product you’re putting out, the customers are going to be able to pick that up, because the staff is going to be able to communicate that with the customers.
What new dishes are you most excited for people to try?
We’re in the process of redesigning our entire menu now. We just rolled out about half of [it].  I’m most excited about the pork belly and waffles. A lot of people do chicken and waffles, but pork belly and waffles is our way to set ourselves apart from everyone else and put our own twist on it.
The wings I’m [also] really excited about. We’re playing around with a few different brines right now. A lot of places either smoke ’em [or] they’ve got all sorts of different sauces. Ours, we’re brining them and then doing our own seasoning, and they’re served naked, just dry-rubbed. Not a lot of places do that, but you get the real flavor of the meat instead of saucing it up and covering up that delicious meat flavor, which the brine really helps bring out and makes it super juicy and tender.
With it being summertime, we’ve got a really great roasted beet salad with goat cheese, mandarin oranges, and toasted almonds, and the vinaigrette is pretty cool. I call it a chipotle-maple-dijon vinaigrette, which is kind of a mouthful, so I’m trying to reword it, but it has a subtle kick that’s different from any other arugula beet salad I’ve had. It really sets it apart.
What items do you plan to keep on the menu?
Greek spaghetti (and deluxe), which has been on the menu since 1957, and then the famous meatballs and Toni’s sauce that’s been on the menu for about 40 years. The Yo Mamma burger—we’ve just changed up the beef and the bun, but the toppings are still the same.
Any hesitancy in changing the menu too drastically?
We decided to have a slow transition of menu items to see what works and what doesn’t—so far everything’s worked, so we’re lucky. This is a place where there are a lot of regulars, and they’re all very excited about new stuff, but I want them to keep coming as well as bring in new customers.
You recently hosted Travel Channel’s Man v. Food. How did they find you, and what was that experience like?
From what I understand, they have a team of researchers who look up restaurants, and they found us, being a very iconic spot. One of our top-selling menu items is the Yo Mamma burger (with hash browns, goetta, over-easy egg, chipotle mayo, and American cheese), which is what we made for them. It was pretty cool. We packed the place out, fed the entire staff—they enjoyed everything here.

Arnold’s Bar and Grill, 210 E. Eighth St., downtown, (513) 421-6234, arnoldsbarandgrill.com

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