Louisville-based celebrity chef Edward Lee strays from his signature Southern cooking to debut a new concept in Khora, an ancient grain–based pasta restaurant set to open this summer in downtown’s Kinley Hotel. Cincinnati native and executive chef Kevin Ashworth (formerly executive chef at Magnolia 610) guides the concept as the duo solidifies the menu, promising a strong Midwestern identity inspired by his upbringing. We chatted with both chefs about ancient grains and what diners can expect to experience at Khora.
How did the idea to open a restaurant in Cincinnati come about?
EL: The short story is that someone at Vision Hospitality Group phoned one day and said, We’re doing something in Cincy. Would you be available? We wanted to do something different than [our three restaurants] in Louisville, something original that really spoke to Cincinnati. I’ve traveled there a lot over the past 17 years and seen [the restaurant scene] change a lot…. We wanted to do something that added to the overall landscape. With Kevin being [Khora’s] head chef, we definitely wanted to do something that was more his menu, and he’s great at making pasta. Neither of us is Italian, and neither of us wants to do Italian food. But we’ve been doing these pasta dinners in Louisville for the past five years…and people always love them. [The idea] evolved from that.
How did you land on ancient grains, specifically?
EL: We were doing some research, and this idea to use all these really flavorful flours from ancient grains came up, and then lo and behold, we found a gentleman out of Northern Ohio who’s growing and milling these really cool flours from grains like einkorn and Red Fife [strains of wheat]. We really feel like [these grains] should be more celebrated.
How commonly are they used?
EL: They’re actually pretty hard to find in America. Before the advent of commercial wheat, einkorn was the original wheat, along with emmer and some other strains. Those were all farmed out when [the food industry] went to cheap processed white flour. We’re always trying to look at things from a fresh perspective, and we were like, Yeah, let’s do pasta, but let’s really think about the flours that we’re using. We realized that we have more and more access to some of these ancient flours. And a lot of them were grown in the Ohio Valley a long, long time ago. It just made sense.
How did you determine which flours would work for your concept?
EL: We started testing them and thought, Well, you know what? We don’t have to make it an Italian-identity restaurant. We can do we use these flours and Italian shapes, but we can create a whole menu of pasta that has a Midwestern identity, an Ohio River Valley identity. The more we started to think about that, the more things took shape.
KA: It’s definitely going to add to the Cincinnati scene. It’s not going to be another Sotto—which, Sotto is great, but it’s going to be its own.
How do you separate pasta from its Italian influences?
KA: You look at Skyline Chili, you look at stroganoff. There are plenty of dishes that have a Midwestern identity that don’t have Italian roots. Like spaetzle, with its German heritage. These are things I grew up eating [in Cincinnati].
What impact on flavor and texture do ancient grains have compared to more processed grains?
KA: [The difference] is really crazy. Whole grain flour has a sweetness and a tooth to it. It has its own flavor that shines through. Granted, our dishes are going to have more than just the pasta itself. But I see why my children love just pasta with butter. The spelt flour, and even the semolina flour that we get from this farm, the sweetness that comes through in the pasta is truly original.
EL: I think traditionally, too, pasta has always been viewed as a blank slate, right? And then you add your sauces to it. [With what we’re doing] it really forces us to think completely differently about the pasta, because now the pasta is the main component of the flavor. We’re dealing with a whole different set of flavor profiles, and it makes you rethink the entire category.
Kevin, what was Cincinnati’s dining scene like when you moved to work in Louisville, and what are you most looking forward to upon returning?
KA: When I left, Senate was the first restaurant opening in Over-the-Rhine. It was just starting to make its comeback. My family still lives [in Cincinnati], so I do a lot of back-and-forth. I think Louisville and Cincinnati have a whole lot in common, being up-and-coming food cities with a lot of young professionals. Both are really thriving scenes. There are numerous chefs in Cincinnati I’ve always looked up to, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.
What experience can diners anticipate from Khora?
KA: Something for everyone, but through our vision. It won’t be fast casual. It’ll be more of an experience if you want it to be, but if you’re just running in for lunch we’ll be able to serve you, too, and you’ll love what you get.
EL: We really get into the creative process of cooking, and we just want to be as creative as we can and bring something interesting to the restaurant scene. We’re looking forward to it.
Khora at Kinley Hotel, 37 W. Seventh St., downtown, (513) 381-1100