Chef Vanessa Miller Came to Cook

“I know that this is a city where I can push my culinary career forward instead of feeling like it was going to be stagnant.”

AME: Vanessa Miller
AGE: 32
WHO IS SHE: Executive Chef, Metropole at 21c Museum Hotel

Photograph by Oussmane Fall, Noir Media

Where did you grow up in Cincinnati, and why did you decide to leave?

I grew up in Clifton and went to Walnut Hills High School. I was 18 when I left to go to college at Tufts University in Boston, where I studied economics and political science. I grew up enjoying Cincinnati but wanted to get out and see the world.

How did you make your way into the restaurant industry?

When I was in high school I got a job at the closest restaurant to my house, Dewey’s Pizza. I had a really great manager there who helped me fall in love with working in a restaurant. I felt at home. When I went to Boston, I needed money, so I got a job waiting tables. I got exposed to food that I didn’t have the benefit of being exposed to here in Cincinnati. And I started to really fall in love with the idea of cooking. After begging the chef for a shot in the kitchen, he finally gave me a chance, and I never looked back.

Where else has your cooking career taken you?

The company I worked for in Boston had a couple of places, and I got my first executive chef job at age 24, so it happened pretty quickly. Then I got an opportunity to essentially create the opening concept and be chef of a new restaurant in New York City. It was the kind of opportunity that was too good to pass up. But I didn’t love New York, so I didn’t stay very long—about a year. Then my mentor gave me a call and was like, Listen, I’ve got a monster of a restaurant I’m opening up in Cape Cod. I need somebody I trust to run it for me. So I spent two years out there running a fish house. It had near 250 seats and an attached wholesale seafood market. I got to work with some of the freshest seafood ever.

After two seasons out there, I was like, Alright, I think I’m ready to give New York a try again. I went back to the Royalton Hotel, which is largely seen as having been the first boutique hotel. I was very lucky to have a great role there and to have a great mentor. And I grew into a food and beverage director and executive chef role there.

When and why did you return to Cincinnati?

August 2020. When the pandemic hit, I’d been working as director of culinary operations for an Australian concept based in New York City for about a year. During the pandemic, things got really hard and scary in New York. I started to think about the longevity of my career and where there would be roles for somebody like me there in the immediate future. I’m good at building things and growing things, and I got concerned that there wasn’t going to be a call for people to build or grow anything in New York over the next year. I was standing on the corner of Thompson and Sixth in SoHo walking from one location to another, and I just thought What if I went home? On a whim, I looked at a job posting website for chefs and 21c was looking for an executive chef in Cincinnati.

How have you put your own spin on Metropole’s menu?

We’ve definitely put a decent amount of seafood on the menu. As of mid-April, we’re a week away from opening a new raw bar concept on the rooftop. It’s going to be a rotating eight- to 10-dish menu, with East and West Coast oysters and fun things that are recognizable. We’ll also put our stamp on it, like with our black truffle clam chowder, caviar grilled cheese, and Oishii shrimp cocktail sourced from Thailand—the best shrimp money can buy.

How has Cincinnati changed since you left, and was it an easy choice to return?

My family still lives here, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to relish the opportunity to see them more often. But what made it an easy choice was the big boom in the restaurant scene over the last 10 to 15 years. I’d been really lucky to kind of have a bird’s-eye view when I visited, so it was an easy choice, because I know that this is a city where I can push my culinary career forward instead of feeling like it was going to be stagnant.

How is it the same as before?

The buildings are all the same. Instead of knocking things down and rebuilding them, there’s been a lot of attention on restoration. There are some iconic and beautiful old buildings that have been refreshed and refurbished, which I think is really lovely.

What’s your favorite new discovery since returning?

It’s difficult to say since I returned during the pandemic, but I can’t wait to go to a Reds game again. I’m just so excited to just be in a stadium again when the time is right. I need to be able to bring that back into my life. That feels very nostalgic to me, like I’m very much at home.

What keeps you here now?

It’s really hard to speak in absolutes, but I’m very happy and I see lot of potential for myself here, both within the restaurant scene and personally. I don’t know what opportunities might be down the line, so there’s no saying that if a really great opportunity appeared elsewhere I wouldn’t at least consider it. But for now I’m looking to buy a house and be here for the foreseeable future.

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