Last week could have been a celebratory one at Khora restaurant.
About a month ago, Edward Lee, the celebrity chef and Louisville-based restaurateur who partnered with Downtown’s Kinley Hotel to open the restaurant in October 2020, discovered Khora was going to be included on Esquire magazine’s 2021 list of Best New Restaurants in America.
But when the list was published on Nov. 18, Khora was nowhere to be found.
When fact-checkers from Esquire called Lee about the story, he had to break the news that Humanist Hospitality, which operates the Kinley, had severed ties with him and fired the restaurant’s executive chef, Kevin Ashworth, in September. In other words, the Khora that the magazine’s writers and editors fell in love with was no more, and Esquire promptly removed it from the list.
“One of our editors had a meal there in the spring and loved it, so we had our reporter, Joshua David Stein, dine there again in the fall,” Kevin Sintumuang, Esquire’s lifestyle and culture director, told The Enquirer via email. “We were excited to include it on the list, but after hearing about the news of the split, we decided not to include it because obviously, it wouldn’t be the same restaurant without Ed and Kevin.”
The menu at Khora featured Ashworth’s thoughtful takes on traditional pasta dishes and small plates with a Midwestern twist. Most were made with local ingredients including rare or ancient grains sourced from the Ohio Valley.
According to Lee, representatives from Humanist told him the reason it was severing ties with him and terminating Ashworth was that the restaurant wasn’t profitable. Lee, who owns several restaurants in Louisville and Washington, D.C., said that was unfair given the restaurant opened just a year ago in the middle of a pandemic.
When contacted by The Enquirer, Humanist vice president of sales and marketing Lynn Mucciano said the company could not provide a comment at this time.
While it’s a personal blow to Lee, he said he is far more concerned about the all-star team that tried as hard as they could to make Khora one of Cincinnati’s most celebrated new restaurants. That team included Ashworth, pastry chef Megan Ketover and former general manager Blair Bowman, who previously worked at Eleven Madison Park in New York.
“All of my restaurants lost money in year one,” he said. “That’s what happens when you commit yourself to quality and make a choice to have the best people in the business work for you. I was really proud of the restaurant and the team. To pull the plug based on numbers was such a slap in the face and an insult to our time and efforts.”
What might’ve been
The nod from Esquire could have been a life-changer for Ashworth, an Anderson Township native, as well as Ketover, a beloved local pastry chef who has appeared on cooking shows on both Bravo and the Food Network. On Nov. 9, Ketover announced via Facebook that she was leaving Khora to work for Sixteen Bricks bakery. Bowman left the restaurant earlier this year.
The shoutout would also be a boon to the city itself as the Esquire list is highly influential, often giving its winners a boost in business, not to mention bragging rights for the cities in which those restaurants are located.
The entire situation has left Lee frustrated and saddened over what might have been.
“It was a huge honor because I’ve always looked up to Esquire, but I realized that I couldn’t share it with anyone.”
He said the unrealized accolade is further proof that Khora deserved more time to make a name for itself and start profiting after opening during some of the worst months of the pandemic.
“It just killed me,” Lee said.
Lee’s decision to invest in Cincinnati generated a lot of buzz among national media outlets when it was announced in 2019. Both Vogue and Food & Wine magazines named Khora to their lists of 2020’s most anticipated restaurant openings.
Lee, a four-time James Beard Award nominee, is highly regarded in the culinary world. He was one of two chefs featured in the third season of “Mind of a Chef,” the PBS food documentary series produced by Anthony Bourdain, and also appeared on the Bravo cooking competition show “Top Chef.” His memoir, “Buttermilk Graffiti,” won the 2019 James Beard Award for best book of the year.
In 2018, he launched the Lee Initiative to bring more diversity, equity and training to restaurants. During the pandemic, the group transformed kitchens in several cities into relief centers, providing upward of 200,000 meals to unemployed restaurant and hospitality workers.
Despite the situation with Khora, Lee hopes Ashworth, Ketover and the rest of the team know that, in his mind, they did create one of the best new restaurants in the country. Esquire article or not.
“They deserved to know that they did a good job,” Lee said over the phone, his voice audibly cracking. “I feel terrible that they can’t celebrate it because I know how happy they would have been and I know how they would have loved it. It’s really unfair because they did such a great job.”
No grudges against the city
Lee admits the experience with the Kinley has left a bad taste in his mouth. But that’s not the case with the city itself.
And while some might view the departure of a nationally recognized chef like Lee from Cincinnati’s restaurant scene as a blow, he said we needn’t worry, that we have all the talent we need right here, pointing out chefs such as Jose Salazar and Jean-Robert de Cavel.
“Look at Jean-Robert and what he means to Cincinnati,” Lee said. “He could have gone anywhere, but he chose to make this his home base and commit to Cincinnati.” He said the love that de Cavel shows for the city and the love he gets in return creates a positive energy that is contagious and makes other chefs excel and up their games.
As of Nov. 23, Khora’s website still includes Lee’s biography and references to his grain-focused menu. While the menu remains the same for right now, the restaurant’s kitchen is now helmed by Khora’s new executive chef Jared Bennett, formerly of Branch restaurant in Walnut Hills.
Khora, 37 W. Seventh St., Downtown; 513-977-2800, khorarestaurant.com.