Phil Gentry Makes Art Out of His Food

The chef de cuisine at Fausto has a culinary background befitting of the Contemporary Arts Center.

Phil Gentry, the chef de cuisine at Fausto downtown, has a culinary background befitting of the Contemporary Arts Center. 

Illustration by Chris Danger

How did you decide cooking was for you?

My general culinary background begins in grade school. I’ve always loved food very deeply, and from a young age I’ve been enthralled with education on cooking. I would come home from school at 8 or 9 and watch Food Network while eating my afternoon snack. It was always Everyday Italian or Barefoot Contessa or 30-Minute Meals or, my favorite, Good Eats. After watching all these shows and seeing what could be done with food—for self and for family and for love—I decided at the age of 9 that I would make cooking my thing; I would be a chef. From there I went to C’est Ce Bon! Cooking Camp in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, four summers in a row. That was the first insight I had to restaurant-level cooking, eating from the land, producing and composting our own goods, and using truly sharp knives.

What was your first restaurant job?

Through high school, I kept the love alive, but didn’t work toward my career. I was too busy getting through the difficulties that come with being a student. I made dinner and watched cooking and food shows and experimented, but no stages, no books, no exceptional fine dining experiences. However, as if by instinct, five days after graduation, I began working at Nation, a then yet-to-be-opened burger restaurant in Pendleton. That was an incredible journey, first restaurant job ever was opening a much anticipated fast-casual restaurant. It was fast, greasy, hot work and my 17-year-old self was immediately hooked. I got my chops there, learned how to be quick, tidy, organized, and prepared. But I wanted fine dining, that’s where the love is.

Your work at Maribelle’s got you there, right?

That’s where I learned the beauty of blending ecological, sustainably sourced and raised foods, with comforting, satisfying fare. I never got past salad station there, but the time was indispensable. There I learned plating techniques, creative utilization of ingredients, and the importance of technique. I owe a lot to the crew that showed me how to cook, really cook, in a pressured, fine dining setting. I learned not only how to play the game there, but win. During this time, I also began attending Midwest Culinary Institute full time to round out my education.

And then Metropole.

That’s where it really took off. Numbers for service like I’d never seen before, produce and products I’d never seen in real life, techniques and procedures I’d only ever read about. It was the bigs for me. I felt like I’d made it. Through two and a half years of grueling hard work, long, long nights, intense dinner services, and a full-time schedule as a student, I made it up the ladder. From being a kid with some experience and a hungry attitude for cooking to a headstrong, powerful, knock-em-outta-the-park cook, Metropole was the most influential kitchen I’ve ever worked in. I made friends for life, found recipes I still steal to this day, and learned how to do it, and do it well. I made my bones.

How’d you get to Fausto?

As these things always do, Fausto came along at just the right time. I was starting to get antsy for a chef position while approaching my three-year mark at Metropole. That’s when Tony Ferrari contacted me, seemingly out of the blue, to become his sous chef at his first restaurant he’d be opening in Cincinnati with his brother and partner, Austin. It was a whirlwind. Managing a kitchen is nothing like working in one, and that first year was hell. I didn’t have my footing, I had no confidence in being a leader, listening to and working with other strong headed cooks, and keeping the whole thing together. But I worked hard to get there. To get to the point that I could do it well. I studied and thought hard and practiced and made mistakes and atoned for them. I was finally there. I’d made it. I felt that I could take on the world. Then the pandemic hit.

Oof, what happened as result of the pandemic?

Fausto closed for six long months. When we returned, I felt like I was starting all over. I forgot everything it seemed, which ended up being the best thing that could happen. When I returned, I took on role of chef de cuisine, which is in between sous chef and executive [chef]. Essentially, I make most of the decisions for the restaurant, make sure it’s running, food is ordered, service and cleaning are done properly and that things go smoothly. I just can’t make every decision (that’s for owner and executive chef Tony). Coming back, being fully in charge with no one to watch over me, to work under my own momentum and have an entire restaurant run off my momentum was terribly difficult and stressful. I cried after many shifts, felt fed up and done with cooking, that my work wasn’t important. We were barely staying afloat with hardly any guests. However, as it often does, hard work and perseverance paid off. Slowly and steadily, Fasuto got its clientele back, and before we knew it, Keith Pandolfi wrote a stunning review in the Enquirer and we were busier than we’d ever been. Finally, it all paid off. And that’s where we are now. Many menus, several changes of crews, a handful of growing seasons and lots of espresso, but we’ve made it. I like to consider us a standalone in Cincinnati. Totally unique and totally real. A staple in the city, a beacon to seasonal, sustainable cooking and eating that is here to stay.

So I hear you have a side passion for fermenting? How does that work?

Aside from traditional cooking, fermentation is my second great passion, which happily goes hand in hand. I’m not positive how I got into it originally. Probably It’s Alive, a fermentation show from Bon Appetit. But I was immediately infatuated with it. The science behind cooking has always been the most attractive aspect of it. The true alchemy that goes into it. Transforming simple items to the most incredible stuff imaginable. The power that we’re allowed to hold in cooking is awe-inspiring. Fermentation is the epitome of this. Literally domesticating and cultivation microflora and fauna to reach a truly delicious product is insane. With just a little water, salt, and produce you can create some of the best food you can and want to eat. It’s inspiring and empowering. It’s also very grounding, an excellent way to bring yourself back to times when we would prepare food in this way as necessity, also in the way that, ultimately, you as the cook have very little control. You can only do so much when you leave it up to nature. It reminds you that you are part of a bigger picture.

What’s your favorite dish to make at Fausto?

These days, I don’t cook nearly as much as I’d like to. It’s a lot more of doing dishes, writing menus, butchering, and running service. But when I do cook, there are a few things that really get me going, things that I know I can do very well. Every menu has its own set of dishes that are especially nice to make. Charred and Chilled Octopus with Beet Crema and Lemon Pepper or Smoked Beets with Avocado, Dukkah and Beet Jam come to mind. However, everyday stuff that we make that I love? It has to be mushrooms and pasta. The way we cook our mushrooms here are truly magical. Deep roasted flavor, tons of umami, butter, shallot, thyme, sherry vinegar, fermented honey. It’s an ethereal experience. It is time consuming and a process, with five steps for the entire cook. But if you do it right, just right, the mushrooms are unmatched. And pasta is just sexy. Gentle tossing, flipping, spooning, and stirring pasta feels like you’re dancing with the skillet—you mustn’t be too powerful coming on, but you must know what steps to take and how to take them confidently. And pasta is one of the foods that you can show your stuff. It’s easy to see when an inexperienced cook makes pasta.

What changes have you made to the menu since coming aboard?

I’ve changed nearly everything here! With coming on as chef de cuisine, I’m afforded the luxury of having my creative vision for food come to life on the menu. There have certainly been ups and downs, good and bad dishes, and many excellent ones. We still have classics on the menu like chicken salad, avocado toast, and Caesar salad, but past that, it’s all been my ideas. As a cook as young as I am, at 24, I never thought I’d already be in this position. To not make food for guests that I want to, but to have people love it. To ask for me by name because of a meal they had. Crazy, head-spinning experience.

Have you found any inspiration in the art around at the CAC?

I find myself to be an appreciator of the arts, in any form. I love weird stuff. Clothes, music, cover art, prints, graffiti, tattoos, food, paintings, sculpture, performance. I look for art everywhere—I crave it. I truly love the human aspect of creation in everything. However, when it comes to cooking, I very rarely have “inspiration.” More often than not, I start with ingredients and work backwards, figuring out what sounds good, what techniques are interesting and how to make a fully rounded dish. Some chefs will see a mural or hear a song and it immediately comes to them, what dish to make or how to plate it. I’m not that guy, I find myself being someone that loves art and has an artful mind. Rather than doing a one-to-one “inspiration to plate” model, I take in the thing that I find interesting, put it away in my brain bank, and use that gained knowledge to create a more complete picture. Not just for cooking and food, but for myself as a whole. I truly love the art at the CAC, it’s always excellent, masterfully curated pieces, but I love it as an appreciator of the art, not a chef.

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