Jose Salazar, executive chef of the Palace Restaurant in the Cincinnatian Hotel was named Food and Wine magazine's "The People's Best New Chef for 2011" for the Great Lakes region, besting bigger Midwest cities, including Chicago. So, there.

But don't expect one of those heart-warming stories about a kid who hung out in the kitchen soaking in generations of food expertise.

"My mother really wasn't a great cook," he says. "A lot of chefs have those stories about learning at the hip of a grandmother or mother in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I wasn't that lucky."

Instead, his path to the kitchen started behind the bar in New York at 18 where he served drinks before he could legally knock one back. "Then I worked as a waiter and always found myself intrigued by what was going on in the kitchen rather than the front of the restaurant."

Learning from the best

His "culinary grandmother" was instead the renowned Thomas Keller, a Food and Wine magazine's "People's Best New Chef for 1988" and an owner of several noteworthy restaurants, including The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Salazar was mentored four years in Keller's kitchen at Bouchon Bakery of New York and Per Se.

It was at Bouchon that he waded into menu writing as executive sous chef and created a dish seven years ago that was familiar to everyone, yet put him in the spotlight, meriting a mention in Details magazine.

It was tomato soup and grilled cheese.

But this soup was made with San Marzano Italian tomatoes, a variety considered by many chefs to be the best sauce tomato in the world "We serve it at The Cricket," he says, "using Vermont cheddar cheese on a locally-baked bread similar to challah or brioche. And the soup is sweet but with a little acidity. It's comfort food that goes back to childhood. And it's great this time of year, popular on these rainy, gray days."

Though he's gone on to create more sophisticated dishes, it is his penchant for "reinterpreting humble ingredients in brilliant ways, like grits cake with fennel soubise" (a sauce made with onions or onion puree), that made him a winner according to Food and Wine magazine.

He takes his inspiration for creating dishes on a menu that changes five to six times a year from "anywhere. I may be out and about and see a pomegranate and think of incorporating it into a dish. Or a purveyor may say he has a beautiful fish coming in Friday. It could be anything," especially in the warm months when he can tap into a wealth of locally produced ingredients.

Salazar often begins constructing the next menu as soon as the current offerings are printed and tries not to let trends interfere. "Instead I try to guess what the diners might want, or what I might want to eat." This time of year, tastes run to heartier fare, braised ribs and meats . . . dishes that cook long and slow. "People go for more comfort food now; they're not worried as much about their weight."

"I want to have variety on the menu with popular offerings, but also with something for those who are more adventuresome when they go out. I wish sometimes people would venture out of their comfort zone a little more."

His suggestion? "We have a spice-rubbed Albacore tuna served rare or medium rare that's wonderful. The texture is so much better if you don't cook it too long."