Mighty Good, the new southern “meat-and-three” restaurant in the former Social OTR space near Findlay Market, serves the type of deeply satisfying comfort food that can drive one to seek out some down-home recipes. Luckily, the search won’t take long. The wallpaper is adorned with favorite recipes from restaurant director Travis Maier’s Arkansas-born grandmother, including “Ozark pudding,” “Ruthie’s peach pie,” and “hog heaven party punch.” It’s fitting that its very walls are informative. Just a few more feet away, in the kitchen, lessons are taking place.
Along with running the restaurant, Maier also manages the Findlay Culinary Training Program, of which Mighty Good is a part. He joined the nonprofit after several years as the culinary director for Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment. The program operates in partnership with CityLink Center to help unemployed and underprivileged people gain experience in the restaurant industry. During the 13 weeks of intensive training (including paid internships at Mighty Good), participants learn cooking skills as well as basic life skills. Current FCTP students make up most of the kitchen staff. When we spoke about the program’s progress, Maier was getting ready to welcome a new cohort, set to begin in November 2021. The class was full; typically 12 to 14 students are accepted per cohort, of which he expects around 10 to graduate.
There have already been success stories. The first cohort interned under George Zappas at the new TQL Stadium, helping the food service team feed thousands of hungry FC Cincinnati fans. Following the internship, all 10 graduates were hired on at the stadium. Maier proudly reports that Zappas personally commended the graduates’ skill and work ethic. “He is a well-respected chef in the city and his opinion means a lot,” he adds. “Probably the biggest compliment he gave was that the students were eager and willing to learn.”
In many ways, Mighty Good itself is a testament to the program’s success. While the restaurant’s head chef, Anthony Garrison, completed his training at Sullivan College of Culinary Arts in Louisville, sous chef Ricky Denny was one of the program’s early graduates, crediting the program with helping him overcome addiction and incarceration. After completing his training, Denny landed a sous chef job at Maize. Now, he has made the return journey of a few short blocks, to work with and for the program the helped him turn his life around.
As for the rest of the kitchen staff, none had ever worked in a restaurant kitchen prior to the opening of Mighty Good. If opening a restaurant in the pandemic era with a kitchen staff primarily composed of first-time restaurant workers sounds like a stressful situation, that’s because it is. “As anyone who’s opened a restaurant knows, things happen,” Maier says. “Whether construction or forgetting a food order…combine that with a group of students who have no restaurant experience and have to be taught how to mop a floor and cook new recipes from scratch. It can be a very stressful process.”
I hope he’s sleeping better now, because the restaurant lives up to its name and then some. First things first: At $11 for an entrée and three sides, Mighty Good offers one of the best values, not just in Over-the-Rhine, but in all of Greater Cincinnati. This bargain basement price tag is especially mind-boggling when one considers the elbow grease that goes into each dish—into each condiment, even. Take the hot sauce, which is made from scratch (the ingredients are succinctly listed on the label as “peppers, spices, vinegar, love”). The restaurant unpretentiously strives for excellence by the bottle, bowl, and plate.
Attitude plays an essential role in this pursuit of excellence. Maier told me that the FCTP does an exceptional job of instilling the type of attitude in its students that allows them to walk into a busy restaurant kitchen and knock out orders. Maier credits Greg Walker, a trainer/facilitator with the City of Cincinnati’s Youth and Teen Program, for this transformation. “He gets them ready to handle tough situations and stay positive,” he says. “Something clicks during his time with the students where they change their perspective.”
Things were certainly clicking on the bustling Saturday evening that I visited. It was a juggling act since there was only one server working the busy dining room. Students don’t work the front of the house, though Mighty Good does work with CityLink to hire servers. Luckily, David, the server/bartender (yes, the restaurant has a full bar), worked the room with alacrity. He stopped by each table to highlight the menu and explain the QR code system, which allows diners to not only view the menu, but order and pay from their phones as well. Then it was back to the bar to stir more bourbon cocktails.
The food came out quickly, still steaming. And delicious. The cornbread—unlike countless others I’ve eaten—was moist, not mealy. The mac and cheese casserole would have been the favorite dish at any church potluck. It was served in a small skillet, so it stayed hot and slightly creamy throughout the meal. (The skillet, like the scratch-made hot sauce, further emphasizes the restaurant’s deft handling of the seemingly small touches.) My meatloaf was like a good terrine: soft yet firm, with chunks of fresh onion and green pepper embedded throughout.
This is food that everyone involved can hang their chef’s hats on. It’s food that the Findlay Culinary Training Program’s students can proudly put on their résumés. As Maier explained to me, this is another of the program’s goals. “The cool part for me is that they will leave us and have this experience on their résumé,” he says. “Getting them ready to say ‘I can handle being busy,’ is a huge bonus to their repertoire.” If each dish is any indication, it’s a rich repertoire already—one that I suspect will only get richer.
See more of Mighty Good on our TikTok @cincinnatimagazine.
Mighty Good, 1819 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 263-6893