During the soft opening of Maverick’s Restobar & Lounge, I ran into Victor Kidd, whose Kidd Family of Brands operates the coffee shop in The Cincinnatian Hotel, right across the hall from the restaurant. We talked about Josh Campbell, who took the helm at Maverick’s, which fills the space once occupied by that iconic Cincinnati restaurant, The Palace.
“He’s a great leader,” Kidd told me. “Not only that but he’s compassionate. He’s exactly the kind of guy you want to work with.”
It’s rare, and refreshing, to hear “compassionate” used as one of the first words to describe a high-profile chef. That he’s also an incredible cook went without saying because, well, it should. Campbell is responsible for several standout restaurants, including Mayberry, the beloved-but-shuttered Over-the-Rhine spot known for elevated comfort food, and Django Western Taco, the creative Northside taco shop that expanded to the On the Rhine food hall before, sadly, shuttering completely at the height of the pandemic. It’s fitting to see a chef who has dealt with the disheartening closures of some genuinely good restaurants take the helm as part of the resurrection of such a storied space.
The comeback doesn’t stop there, however. Aside from running the show at Maverick’s, he has also taken over food and beverage service at local SREE hotels. Additionally, he recently started SQR (pronounced skewer), the izakaya-inspired to-go window operating out of Knox Joseph Distillery’s OTR StillHouse. Oh, and he’s also in charge of meal service at Cedar Oaks Wellness Center, a rehabilitation facility in Oregonia.
How does one chef get involved with so many disparate projects? A little luck and a lot of connection. Campbell got involved with Maverick’s after meeting Kidd through a mutual friend. His work at Cedar Oaks stems from a similar connection. As for his involvement with SQR, he has his basketball skills to thank for that—he met Knox Joseph Operations Manager Steve Schwartz at a pickup game. As a result of that meeting, he started working with the distillery’s owner Michele Hobbs on a menu that, as he put it, would “go well with booze and beer—but we wanted to do something different than the pizza and/or BBQ that you see at most breweries,” he says. “That’s how we hit on the izakaya concept.”
I went down to the OTR StillHouse for brunch on a busy Saturday morning. It was game day for FC Cincinnati and the distillery, located on Central Parkway within shouting distance of TQL Stadium, was full of hungry (and thirsty) FC Cincinnati fans. We all had plenty of good global street food to chow down on. In many ways, SQR is the perfect project for Campbell, who has a talent for making the familiar novel and, conversely, making the novel familiar.
For evidence of the former, we had the refined comfort food of Mayberry. For evidence of the latter, we had Django Western Taco, with its jerk chicken quesadillas and chorizo patty melts. Add to that column the delicious “Dixiekaya” mash-up of teriyaki grilled shrimp with miso butter grits. It’s comfort food at its finest and most inventive.
His take on global fusion food isn’t merely for the sake of eclecticism; he serves dishes that reflect a varied culinary education. He spent five years running the kitchen at the exclusive Graycliff Hotel in Nassau, Bahamas. It was there he came to love conch fritters, learning what he described as the perfect preparation from a local grandmother. His culinary travels have taken him to Mexico, Italy, and Thailand, where he earned a secondary professional culinary degree from the Royal Thai Culinary Institute. He earned his first degree at the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. He made the trip from Cincinnati to Florida after seeing an ad for the school on The Food Network one fateful afternoon in the late ’90s.
His first job out of culinary school was at what he calls a “crappy BBQ joint.” This was followed by a stint at Morton’s, then by a formative culinary relationship with Mike Perrin at celebrated Florida restaurant 11 Maple Street. The restaurant featured seasonal menus, fresh produce, and wild game before such offerings were the norm. “11 Maple Street is the reason I am who I am,” Campbell says.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to think of Maverick’s as a return to Campbell’s roots there. The menu will be seasonal and heavy on fresh vegetables. If the grilled carrot salad I ordered—with its hint of dill and crusty rye croutons—is a sign of things to come, I say bring on the veggies. The restaurant will also feature lots of game meats, like venison and grass-fed bison. Much of this will be locally sourced, as Campbell has cultivated relationships with vendors across the region (he gets his eggs from a farmer in Waynesville and his grains from Carriage House Farm in North Bend).
It’s easy to see that relationships are important to Campbell. Maybe that’s why Kidd was so quick to point out his compassion. (He credits his newfound faith for centering him and helping him keep his cool in the kitchen. “I couldn’t have handled the things I can handle now in 2010, or even 2020,” he says.) His relationships have led to some amazing collaborations, whether from a chance meeting at a pickup basketball game or an introduction through a mutual friend.
When I ask Campbell how Cincinnati’s food scene has changed since he first opened Mayberry in 2009, he was effusive in his praise for other local chefs. “We’ve got some awesome chefs in this city,” he notes. “Jose Salazar, Kayla [Robison] at Arnold’s, Jared Bennett at Khora, Sam Dobrozsi at Fireside, Gramma Debbie runs a great stand at Findlay Market.”
I got the feeling he could have gone on and on. To that list, I would add Josh Campbell of Maverick’s. And SQR. And Cedar Oaks Wellness Center. And…let’s wait and see what else, shall we?
Maverick’s Restobar & Lounge, 601 Vine St., downtown, (513) 864-7135
EDITOR’S NOTE: As of late May, Campbell is no longer with SQR.