Good (Man)ners: Chef Ryan Santos on ‘Please,’ Passion, Creativity, and Inclusion

header (8).jpg

Good (Man)ners is devoted to male-identifying dudes who share our belief that when you uplift women, you uplift everyone. Read on to hear from Cincinnatians who take allyship to heart.

Please owner and chef Ryan Santos knows the struggle of having a unique diet first hand, and it was through the journey of a Crohn’s diagnosis that he found a true, heartfelt passion for cooking. Ryan and his team at Please work hard to provide a tasty selection, making every guest feel like a top priority, no matter their dietary choices or restrictions. In addition to creating a safe and inspiring atmosphere for his guests, it’s equally important for Ryan to operate a space that includes a diverse staff, and showcases creative food and drinks by women who are routinely overlooked and undervalued in the food industry.

Tucked in a quiet corner on Clay Street in Over-the-Rhine, Please is a warm and inviting space that allows diners to leave their worries at the door, relax, and enjoy a good meal. With a colorfully unique restroom (#pleasepotty) and walls hugged with personal cards, photographs, bus tickets, and wine corks left by guests, the cozy restaurant is a wholesome reminder of the city it serves. Grab some wine or a warm drink and join us at the table as we discuss Ryan’s love for cooking, his perfect day, and his passion for creating an inclusive and well-rounded environment that aims to please.  

Interview by Kristyn Bridges. Photography by Aurore Fournier.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Passionate, driven, creative. Those would probably be my first three. Introverted, which is kind of a funny thing for a chef to say.

Why “Please”? What was the inspiration behind the name?

I wanted to do something that was sort of food-adjacent but not too literal of a food term. So, obviously in the kitchen we're aiming to please and in dining, you say “please” if you need something. And also, just the third connotation of [the Cincinnati phrase] “Please?” kind of works in a little bit.

When it comes to food, what is your favorite Cincinnati staple?

I'm a Skyline convert. I am not a native here, but I've fallen in love with Cincinnati chili. I would say of all the staples here, that's my favorite.

Where are you from?

I grew up about an hour or so from Cleveland, in the Akron/Kenton area. I ended up here for college; I went to U.C. for graphic design and fell in love with cooking while I was in school. I grew up in a very, very small town, so [when I went to school], I got to be exposed to Thai food, Indian food, and all these cuisines that I never experienced growing up. I just fell in love with food and then cooking. I cooked my way through college, and after graduation decided my art school degree was going to go in the closet and I was going to pursue cooking.

post 1.jpg

Tell us about your visiting chef series featuring all female pastry chefs.

Through my culinary journey, both when I was a cook and then when I was fortunate enough to be invited to do guest chef dinners at other places, I met a lot of very, very talented women that I was very inspired by and became friends with. We would share ideas and recipes and that sort of thing. But when I went and did this guest chef thing, it always seemed to be very fancy and high end, and it was also very male-centric. It was never really a great representation of all the talented women that are in the culinary field.

Lately people are shedding light on the fact that so much of the work that gets the face of a man is done by women and minorities behind the scenes.

So I wanted to do the opposite of both those things and create something that was casual and approachable. It didn't have to be $100 or $150 to have this elaborate dinner and taste the food that these talented women make. So I reached out and invited them to come one Sunday a month and do a bake sale. They could take it however they wanted, whether they wanted to do a true bake sale or more composed plates; I really let them tailor the menu. And then myself and our team here would help them fill in the gaps. It was a way to do the guest-chef thing a little bit differently than what seems to be standard.

And then we were also pouring wines by female winemakers, something we had started doing before that event. It was the same sort of thing, you know: You'd go everywhere and see a very male-heavy winemaker list. The wines we were gravitating toward were these beautiful, delicious wines mostly from France and Italy that had women producers, and so we decided to spotlight that on the wine list. It was just natural, having these creative pastry chef women in and then pairing them with female produced wines – it was a cool, all-encompassing, brunch sort of thing.

Is the series still ongoing?

It wrapped up for the summer, so this summer [2018] was kind of a trial to see how the response would be. We had four this summer and we're starting to plan for this next spring/summer again to do it once a month (we'll probably do more). But the reception this year was great, so we definitely want to continue.  

What do you think it takes to be a good ally and supporter of those who aren’t white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class men?

For me, when I opened this restaurant, it was really important to be very inclusive and open and, you know, thriving on the diversity of the experiences that everybody could bring to the table. If everybody brings their perspective to the table and we all taste a dish, or we have an idea and put it together, it continues to help lift this creative environment. Just giving everybody a voice, that's the rule that we've operated here from day one. Whether you're a sous chef or an entry-level cook or the host or whoever – no matter if it's kitchen or not – you can present ideas and be creative here if you want to.

I assume my job as a chef is to teach and cook and guide, but also to be receptive to being taught and guided by people with different experiences and backgrounds that may not always have a voice in other environments.

So I think just being very vocal about that from the beginning and giving everybody the power to contribute and be as creative as they want is really important. And through that, we've hired a very diverse group here, making sure women in the kitchen are on an equal playing field. We have a trans cook; we have an African American cook. In all kind of aspects, we try and make sure that everybody's voices and ideas can all come to the table and create a family here. It's been really important to me. I assume my job as a chef is to teach and cook and guide, but also to be receptive to being taught and guided by people with different experiences and backgrounds that may not always have a voice in other environments.

Is there a shift happening in restaurants now?

There have always been women in the kitchen, always. Every job I've ever had, I don't know if it's always been 50/50, but there's always been a strong presence of women, and minorities, as well. I think maybe just lately people are shedding light on the fact that so much of the work that gets the face of a man is done by women and minorities behind the scenes.

But I also think – I don't know if you consider me a young chef or not; I'm in my mid 30s – there's also this sort of new guard of chefs coming in, I'd say my age and younger, who didn't come up in these very masculine, military-style kitchens. I definitely did, and my experience was really interesting when I traveled the world… It wasn't just about, “Oh, I want to learn how to do that,” but just seeing how they ran their kitchens and treated people and that sort of thing. There were definitely moments when I was like, “The food here is amazing, but this is never how I would ever want to treat people or run my kitchen.”

But I think this younger guard went through that background in the very early stages of their life and they're like, “It doesn't have to be this way. I know that's how it's been for 50 years, but it doesn't have to be that way.” In kitchens, you work hard every day, but the rule here has always been, “Let's work really hard and let's have a lot of fun while we do it and let's support each other.”

post 4.jpg

How has having Crohn's disease changed your relationship with food? How did it help inspire you to open your own restaurant?

That's really what got me into cooking in college. I had it in my teens, but I didn't get truly, truly, sick with it until early in college. The first thing that everybody does is throw medication at you, and with Crohn's, it's very interesting: There's probably a hundred different medicines, and one works for one person but doesn't work for the other. So you go through this massive scope of medications that all have the same effects as your symptoms already, so you never really know what's working and what's not. So I went to see a doctor who wanted to approach it through diet. He had me go gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, and alcohol-free. Those are the triggers for Crohn's disease, so they just take them all away at once and then you introduce one back [at a time]. As an 18-year-old college kid, that was like my food group: sugar, carbs, gluten, alcohol. I was like, “Oh my god, I don't know what to eat anymore.”

I cooked my way through college, and after graduation decided my art school degree was going to go in the closet.

I took it really seriously. At this point – that was 18, 19, 20 years ago – there weren't gluten-free aisles at Kroger or the amount [of things] available that there are now for people with dietary concerns, so I just learned how to cook. You know, I grew up in a pretty standard Midwestern household: My mom made dinner; my dad grilled; that sort of thing. I baked a little bit with my mom and my grandma, but never really helped cook dinner, so I had to learn from scratch. I started making all my meals at home, just to make sure I was truly abiding by these rules the doctor wanted me to try for myself. I did that for nine months and fell in love with cooking. They found out it wasn't really a food trigger like that, so I got to slowly incorporate those foods back into my diet, but still kind of fell happily in love with cooking, so I continued just as a hobby. Like I said, I was thinking I was going to be a graphic designer and have a hobby of cooking, but it kind of switched by the time I had graduated. I wanted to pursue the professional cooking thing and after graduation, started traveling and finding jobs in kitchens and cooking around the world.

Has your own journey through cooking and figuring out your triggers inspired your menu?

It's not so much that it inspires the menu, but we cook for all dietary restrictions here. So, people let us know they have this very specific diet; we always make sure we have menu items for them and a dinner planned for them. A lot of restaurants can be like, “No, we don't make any modifications or restrictions or anything like that.” It's been really important for me to say that we welcome those allergies because I've been through that myself and I know how hard it can be to go out to eat – let alone find a place that I really, really want to try, and then they don't want to make any sort of effort or modifications to allow you to dine there. So that was really big here from day one and something that we still do. We always have a gluten-free menu, a vegan/dairy-free menu, combination of the two, and then if people let us know further what allergies they have ahead of time, we try and tailor some dishes and a menu for them for that night, just to make sure they're taken care of.

What does a perfect day look like for you?

[Laughs.] A perfect day for me, generally, is getting to sleep in a little bit and not having to come into the restaurant right away. Usually I'm here between 9:30 and 10 a.m., so sleeping in until 10 a.m. is a nice way to start the day. Going for a walk with my dogs and my girlfriend in the morning and having some breakfast would be a good start. Being able to stop in and see that the kitchen and the staff don't need me here during the day, which has been a big process of teaching, guiding, and mentoring people… You know, obviously with owning a restaurant and being a chef, you're a bit of a control freak with those sort of things, so to me it's perfect when I come in and they say, “Hey, you should just go home or go do your thing; we got everything here handled.”

I think being passionate about what you do always goes a long way.

But yeah, I'm pretty easy. This summer, just kind of getting to hang out on my back patio with my dogs, my girlfriend, and grill. I'm not a big “go out and party” kind of person. I'm surrounded by food here so much that like, I do like to eat out, but I’d much rather hang out at home, cook some food, and just spend time with the people that I love and enjoy being with.

What’s next for you?

Um, I don't know. This [Please] still feels very much like my baby, so I don't have a number two or number three or any of those in mind by any means. I would love just to continue to create the space and environment that we do here, continue to grow that, and continue to progress here with everybody and just continue to make good food here. I try not to look too far into the future, and through that, I kind of try to live in the moment a little bit more. So, I don't know exactly what's next, but right now I'm still very much enjoying being here. I get to wake up and be as creative as I want every day, so to me that’s the dream. I'm so fulfilled by that and so fulfilled by the staff here that allow me to do that and also have the opportunity to do that themselves. I'm pretty good with the status quo right now.

Being a chef is about the food, but is also about leadership and support and all these things. So I think that's the biggest step next, if there was something. It's supporting talent that's here and helping them grow to be their best.

post 2.jpg

What makes for a good chef? What qualities do you need?

I think being passionate about what you do always goes a long way. I'm very fortunate that, across the board here, from the front to the back of the house, everyone's very passionate about what they do and very passionate about being here. I think that makes the food taste better and the experience better, whether it's tangible or not. You're surrounded by people who care. I think humility actually goes a long way in the kitchen. Knowing when you're wrong and not just pushing back, saying, “This is my way” or “This is how it's supposed to be done” is probably the biggest thing that I've learned being a chef. Understanding that we all have our strengths and we all have some weaknesses, and if you can rely on somebody who has the strength where your weakness is, we can all kind of work together. We have a very big team element here instead of a very like, “I only do these things and if everybody else is having trouble or not ready, that's their problem,” which happens a lot in kitchens.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

The first is obviously my mom. Like I said, I didn't cook a lot with her; I baked with her and my grandma, but a big part of what I think stuck with me is we gardened a lot together when I was growing up. She started with flowers, and I was interested in vegetables when I wasn’t even a teenager yet. We spent every year planting the garden and tending to it together. As a teenager, son-mom relationships can be tough, so it was a great way for us to spend time talking in the garden and also working on something together. I think that really shaped who I am, both in appreciation for local farms and local produce and stuff like that, but also, it was really great to know every summer we were going to spend an hour every day in the garden together and be able to talk and open up to her.

So that really inspired me. And just her work ethic, too. She was always so supportive and very creative and open-minded, and instilling that in me was great. To have the most important woman in your life as a kid to tell you that you can… It's not like, “Oh, art school, maybe you should find something where you can get a real job.” She was always just so, so supportive of any idea that I had, anything that I wanted to do, and her support and openness really, really stuck with me and led me down a very creative path in my life, but also kind of instilled that nature of just saying, “If someone comes to you with something, supporting that idea and doing everything you can to help kind of grow that and help that…” That's shaped who I am.

Know a dude with good manners? Tell us more! Good (Man)ners launches every month.