Chef Chit Chat: Authenticity & Shifting with The Winds Café

June 25, 2019

42 years of farm-to-table expertise has made The Winds Café, located in Yellow Springs, a culinary staple in Southwestern Ohio. Executive Chef Mary Kay Smith will tell you, “Farm to Table has become such a battle cry and also commercial catch phrase to lure diners.” She explains, “Yes, it’s a business and we all have to make a living, but guests respond to authenticity. We try to use as much local food as possible, but realize the constraints of the Ohio growing season. It’s sometimes problematic for some customers not to have an out of season tomato on their burger or sandwich, but we try to impart the positive part of supporting locally sourced products rather than mega agribusiness.” 

Sous Chef Roland Eliason adds “What we have access to just makes the job that much more interesting. With unpredictable weather, [we have to] plan as we know product is coming off the fields. Sometimes that is 12 hours before service. We learn to adapt to our environment and use what is truly available locally.”

At Winds Cafe tradition blends with innovation thanks to its two spirited leaders. Mary Kay, an industry veteran, has been part of Winds since it first opened as a co-op. It’s where she learned to cook, sharpening her craft ever since. Roland started at Winds two years ago, bringing with him experience from various kitchens in Ohio and Texas, taking the opportunity for him and his wife to be closer to family.

Due to its seasonal and local focus, the menu at Winds is constantly evolving. To keep cohesiveness, Mary Kay believes each dish needs to be tied to a place or a culture. Her advice to any up and coming chef – “Try to find your voice in the dishes you create and promote what you do and why it is important.” It seems her advice has certainly resonated with Roland. He illustrates, “I cook by feel. I usually find a handful of ingredients that inspire me that day and use them in what I am doing. It sparks a fire and I see what comes of it.” This time of year diners will find dishes like Creole Mussels, Asparagus Aillade, Grilled Tumeric Swordfish Skewers and Early Summer Risotto, in which the vegetable ingredients change daily.

When asked about the biggest changes she has seen in the food industry over the past 40 years, Mary Kay states “Social media has made such a difference in the way restaurants can communicate special events and new dishes, through photos especially. Unfortunately, it can also be a sounding board for those who don’t like to voice concerns directly to people that can help with the situation. Before social media and email, guests would either call or write a letter to either express positive or negative critiques. They were more measured reactions than you see now.” Her response? Prioritize pushing yourself to be the best you can be. Not everyone is always going to like what you do, but if you’ve done your best, it’s a lot easier to let the criticism go.

Further, she points out “Technology has made guests hyper aware of nano-seconds. Yes, we don’t write and add checks by hand anymore, or calculate sales tax by looking at a chart, but it still takes a certain amount of time to cook items to order.” That being said, when looking towards the future, she still believes that authenticity will trump efficiency in the long run. “The industry publications all say fast-casual will be what everyone wants and that more restaurants will jump on the delivery bandwagon, but from what I see when I travel and from our guests [it’s that] they are looking for authentic. They are looking for interaction, and they get that when they dine out in smaller, intimate places.”

Roland has a slightly different prediction of the industry’s future. He muses “Smaller shops will start to dominate the landscape. 2-4 people operations at most. This can mostly be attributed to lack of work pool. It is far more efficient to manage a team of 4 and be able to turn over the space you have multiple times than a team of 25 and hope it fills up once.”

What does this mean for the future of Winds Café? Well, they’re not slowing down any time soon. “I hope to do a large expansion of our farm-to-table items and use more primal cuts to take advantage of the less used parts of the animal,” Mary Kay says. “We are making a bigger push on preserving local produce and fruit in season.”

So how do these tireless chefs unwind at the end of the day? For Mary Kay its “Linguine, garlic butter, handful of fresh parsley and grated Parmesan…nothing better after a long shift.” Roland prefers a more on-the-go approach. “Anything I can slap between two pieces of sourdough and snack on as we clean.”


Written by: Marianna Marchenko