Training program

Findlay’s culinary training program is a great good cause

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

Mighty Good, the new southern “meat and three” restaurant in the former Social OTR space near Findlay Market, serves the kind of deeply satisfying comfort food that can inspire people to seek out local recipes. Fortunately, the search won’t take long. The wallpaper features restaurant manager Travis Maier’s Arkansas-born grandmother’s favorite recipes, including ‘Ozark Pudding’, ‘Ruthie’s Peach Pie’ and ‘Pork Heaven Pudding’. . It is normal that its very walls are informative. A few steps away, in the kitchen, lessons take place.

In addition to running the restaurant, Maier also runs the Findlay culinary training program, of which Mighty Good is a part. He joined the association after several years as the culinary director of Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment. The program works in partnership with CityLink Center to help unemployed and disadvantaged people gain experience in the catering sector. 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 the bulk of the kitchen staff. When we spoke about the progress of the program, Maier was getting ready to welcome a new cohort, which should start in November 2021. The class was full; typically 12-14 students are accepted per cohort, of which he expects about 10 to graduate.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

There have already been successes. The first cohort was interned under George Zappas at the new TQL Stadium, helping the catering team feed thousands of starving FC Cincinnati fans. Following the internship, the 10 graduates were hired at the stadium. Maier proudly reports that Zappas personally commended the graduates’ skills and work ethic. “He is a highly respected leader in the city and his opinion matters a lot,” he adds. “Probably the biggest compliment he gave was that the students were eager and eager to learn.”

In many ways, Mighty Good itself is testament to the program’s success. While the restaurant’s head chef, Anthony Garrison, was completing his training at the Sullivan College of Culinary Arts in Louisville, sous chef Ricky Denny was one of the program’s first graduates, crediting the program with helping him overcome addiction and incarceration. After completing his training, Denny landed a job as a sous chef at Maize. Now he’s made the short block trip home, to work with and for the program that helped turn his life around.

As for the rest of the kitchen staff, none had ever worked in a restaurant kitchen before Mighty Good opened. If opening a restaurant in the age of the pandemic with a kitchen staff of mostly new 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 it’s build or forget a food order…combine that with a group of students who have no restaurant experience and need to learn how to clean a floor and cook new recipes from You’re welcome. It can be a very stressful process.

Photograph by Jonathan Gibson

I hope he sleeps better now, because the restaurant lives up to its name and more. First things first: At $11 for a main and three sides, Mighty Good offers some of the best value not only in Over-the-Rhine, but in all of Greater Cincinnati. This bargain price is particularly mind-boggling when you consider the elbow grease that goes into every dish — into every condiment, even. Take the hot sauce, which is made from nothing (ingredients are succinctly listed on the label as “peppers, spices, vinegar, love”). The restaurant unpretentiously aims for excellence by the bottle, the bowl and the plate.

Attitude plays a vital role in this pursuit of excellence. Maier told me that the FCTP does an exceptional job of instilling in its students the kind of attitude that allows them to walk into a busy restaurant kitchen and place orders. Maier credits the transformation to Greg Walker, a trainer/facilitator with the City of Cincinnati Youth and Teen Program. “It prepares them to handle tough situations and stay positive,” he says. “Something clicks during his time with the students where they change their perspective.”

Things were definitely clicking on the lively Saturday night I visited. It was a juggling act as there was only one server working in the busy dining room. Students do not work in front of the house, although Mighty Good works with CityLink to hire servers. Luckily, David, the server/bartender (yes, the restaurant has a full bar), worked the room with alacrity. He stopped at each table to highlight the menu and explain the QR code system, which lets diners not only see the menu, but also order and pay from their phones. Then he was back at the bar to stir up more bourbon cocktails.

Food came out quickly, still steaming. And delicious. The cornbread – unlike countless others I’ve eaten – was moist and not mealy. Mac and cheese casserole would have been the favorite dish at any church potluck. It was served in a small skillet, so it remained warm and slightly creamy throughout the meal. (The skillet, like the handmade hot sauce, further underscores the restaurant’s deft handling of seemingly small touches.) My meatloaf was like a good terrine: soft but firm, with chunks of fresh onion and bell pepper. green integrated everywhere.

It’s food that everyone involved can hang their chef’s hats on. It’s food that students of the Findlay Culinary Training Program can proudly put on their resume. As Maier explained to me, that’s another goal of the program. “What’s cool to me is that they’re going to leave us and have that experience on their resume,” he says. “Preparing them to say ‘I can handle being busy’ is a huge bonus to their repertoire.” If every dish is any indication, this is already a rich repertoire – a repertoire that I suspect will only grow.

See more Mighty Good on our TikTok @cincinnatimagazine.

Powerful Good, 1819 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 263-6893