We Chat With Pastry Chef Megan Ketover on Loving Cincinnati and Toughening Up for Top Chef
"I like being a part of this, and bringing national attention to Cincinnati—that makes me happy. I found such a supportive and wonderful place to work and I work with really great people, so I know we can accomplish more together as a team than I could accomplish in a "big pond" on my own."
Megan Ketover didn't always know that she would become a career pastry chef, but after working consistently in bakeries she decided to make the jump, studying and then teaching at the Midwest Culinary Institute. Three years ago she took over the pastry department at the stunning Orchids at Palm Court, where she works with Executive Chef Todd Kelly to feature fresh ingredients (sourced locally as much as possible) in presentations that are impressive in both execution and comforting in design.
As much as Cincinnati's savory chef scene is progressing by leaps and bounds, Ketover recognizes that there's not a similar abundance of chefs in town focusing on the sweet side. She's doing her part, staying in town even after an appearance on Top Chef: Just Desserts meant she could easily move into a bigger city and playing field. It's clear that Cincinnati has her heart, and she'd rather stick around and help it continue to grow.
Ketover focuses on improving a bit every day, whether that means playing with a new ratio of ingredients in her bread recipe or perfecting the viscosity of a ganache. An herb garden on the 16th floor of the building supplies herbs for that bread, bringing her team even closer to their products than the local wheat they have milled to her liking. And she revels in building the kinds of relationships with her diners that are possible in a small city that, to her, sometimes feels comfortingly like a small town.
We caught up in the cavernous Palm Court about why Cincinnati is an exciting place to be working right now, how she toughened up for Top Chef, and what she hopes the future holds.
What about working professionally in Cincinnati is working for you? I love the fact that the Cincinnati food scene is growing as much as it is. I've lived here my whole life, so I have that rich history and it pulls up a lot of memories for me. I remember going to Hathaways as a kid down in Carew Towers when it was jam packed to get a chocolate milkshake, things like that.
Do you pull a lot of your desserts from nostalgia? Yes, and the classics in general. I do classic flavors with a nostalgic twist, like adding some malt powder or a little brown butter or caramel, things that are comforting. But because of the space that we're in, I try to do it in an elegant way—being in a spot this beautiful, I can't just throw sprinkles on the plate.
When you first came here, what was the biggest challenge you had to meet personally? One of the things I love so much about it here is the volume we go through; we do dinner service every night with three types of mignardise, and sometimes we'll have two thousand covers in banquets on top of that. So sometimes the biggest challenge is just figuring out how to organize it all, and some of that felt daunting to me at the time, because there was just so much to do in any one day. There's such a difference with how humidity and temperature play into the things you do daily, so more than the ingredient it's the volume we have to figure out, so we can serve the freshest stuff possible. But we have a great team in the pastry department and a couple of them have been here for a really long time now so everyone knows what they're doing.
With the growing food scene here, are you noticing a greater education in your diners? Absolutely. When we do food events around town we might have 400 different people coming to sample at our table and it used to be you would say an ingredient and someone would be like, "I have no idea what hibiscus is." Not that it's anything crazy, but now people are like, "Oh, yeah, I buy hibiscus at Findlay Market and I take it home and make sangria with it!"
Despite that, has there ever been a dessert you put on the menu you were concerned wouldn't be received well? Yeah, because Cincinnati used to be a very meat-and-potatoes kind of town where people ate at the same restaurants because they'd always eaten there. So while people are looking for more interesting things I don't do anything too crazy, because you never know how something even like sweet corn ice cream is going to go down. Sometimes people eat it and they're expecting it to not be very good, like, "It's interesting, but I don't really want a bowl of it." But I do it in such a way that I get the essence of that corn and tie in brown butter and a little brown sugar and blackberries, all things that grow and go together. It's really delicious, and people are constantly sending messages or telling their server how much they love it.
Do you feel that communication is unique to your relationships here, too? One of the other things I really enjoy about this town is because it's not a huge city it doesn't take two years before somebody makes it through all the restaurants, so you're really able to make relationships with your diners. And as chefs I feel that it's part of our jobs to educate people and to introduce them to new ideas or a new way of thinking about something. One of my favorite things about going out or talking to people or reading their memoir is hearing how other people talk about or think about food, because it makes perfect sense to me that certain flavors go together, but I like to see how it rolls around in other people's heads together as well.
Did you feel like you were from a small town when you went on Top Chef? I don't think I even thought about it as petrifying, and maybe I should of! But for the most part I had really hardened myself, because I know I'm the nice girl; I can be firm, but I'm usually the one smiling and asking for things politely because that's the way I like things to be. So I'm sitting on the plane with my headphones on, trying to get pumped up; I'm not going to be friends with anybody, I'm not going to be nice to anybody, I'm here to win! And then three days in it was Rebecca's birthday and I was like, "Happy birthday! I love you so much! What would I ever do without you?!" We all wanted to win—you don't go on if you don't want to win—but there was a lot of taking care of each other. Pastry chefs really want to be in control and we had all of our control taken away from us, so if somebody was looking for something you helped them, and there was a lot of collaboration that way. And, again, I love to see how different people work with food, so if you have lemons or raspberries or whatever I love to see how 14 different people do with it.
How were you received coming home? I wasn't allowed to say where I'd been, so I had to keep these weird lies; a lot of people thought I was in rehab or something! So I kept running through those ten episodes and exactly what happened, because you have no idea which 45 minutes of 40 hours is going to make it on there, so I was a little bit more anxious than maybe I would have otherwise been. I was like, what if everybody hates it or I'm awful or I look like a jerk or an idiot? You have the time to think through all of those steps, because it's completely out of your control. And people in Cincinnati could not have been any nicer, any more supportive.
Did your ambitions change after that? On Top Chef that they'd pepper me with, "Do you want to be in a small pond, or do you want to be in a big pond?" I like being a part of this, and bringing national attention to Cincinnati—that makes me happy. I found such a supportive and wonderful place to work and I work with really great people, so I know we can accomplish more together as a team than I could accomplish in a "big pond" on my own. I just hope that the trend continues, and that it continues to grow. There aren't a ton of pastry chefs in the city, so I'd love to see some new pastry chefs stay here and take on new challenges. I want to kind of see the explosion in the pastry world that has happened in the savory world here, and I hope we continue to have evolution a little bit at a time.