Orchids at Palm Court used an unlikely source to track down restaurant artifacts from decades past. “We found menus and other stuff on eBay,” laughs Todd Kelly, executive chef at the fine-dining restaurant in Cincinnati. Former guests with sticky fingers were offering to sell vintage menus, matchbooks, ashtrays, and assorted trinkets picked up during visits to the restaurant, located inside the historic Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. Chef Kelly and his team purchased the items to authenticate the vintage vibe of the restaurant’s 85th birthday dinner.
For Kelly, the evening was also an opportunity to show the evolution of the cuisine at Orchids at Palm Court. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we have a big birthday party with eight courses of food that showcase opening day to now?’” he says. The chef crafted a time-traveling tasting menu with a sense of nostalgia and a modern touch, updating classics like Whole-Roasted Duck à L’orange and Beef Tongue Canapés. With each dish, Kelly tried to envision how chefs of that time period cooked. The Veal Sweetbreads course, inspired by a similar dish from the restaurant’s opening-night menu in 1931, required Kelly to think like the former executive chef. Modern chefs soak veal sweetbreads in milk overnight, but during the Great Depression, milk was scarce. “I thought, ‘Would they soak sweetbreads in milk during a time when milk was a commodity?’ Probably not.” Kelly looked for alternative methods that were more historically accurate and used pictures of other dishes the restaurant had served as inspiration for plating.
The celebration has made Kelly think about the future of Orchids at Palm Court as well. Currently, he’s focusing on re-creating the in-house charcuterie and cheese programs that were once a thriving part of the kitchen. “In a way, we’re going to fast-forward our kitchen by rewinding,” he says.