Meet Katy Turner: Cincinnati Farm-to-Table Chef

Farm-to-table sounds so simple at face value: less processed foods, less trucking of ingredients from source to saucepan. But it is, in fact, a lot more work. That extra work and effort falls to the chefs that strive to partner with local vendors who grow fresh produce. Like the melody of fresh ingredients that marry to create satisfying cuisine, the relationship between farms and chefs is a delicate symbiotic relationship that supports local and small businesses while also contributing to the health and well being of consumers.

One of my absolute favorite farm-to-table chefs is Chef Katy Turner, founder of Mōnan Lēoht Private Suppers and Executive Chef of MyWhy Cincinnati. Long ago, I stumbled upon her Instagram page, drooling while I hearted her creations; I looked forward to trying her delights one day.

In true Cincinnati fashion, I actually met her mom first and messaged Katy immediately of this cute mom meet. The irony was not lost on how vast yet small our Midwest city is. Finally, I landed the chance to stand in Chef Katy’s kitchen during a Mother’s Day event at a local farm. She was kind, full of life’s zest, and her egg sandwich blew my mind. Hugs and selfies followed and ever since I’ve watched in awe and applauded her ability to paint with food and pair with ease. She’s a powerhouse of culinary artistry and natural born teacher. You better believe that every entree or slice of pie will make you dance at first bite. Here’s more of Katy’s story and how she developed a passion for both farm-to-table cooking and food education.

Set the stage: tell us how you began Mōnan Lēoht.

On September 29th this past year (2023) I catered my first private farm-to-table supper since leaving a farm I had worked on as the Executive Chef. I remember how full I felt.  So rich in gratitude as I looked up, stepping off the stoop of that porch, realizing that it was in fact the Harvest Full Moon.  I later learned that Mōnan Lēoht meant “moon light”.  I found the name fitting, seeing as the supper that evening was in support of the local harvest.  And so it was, that every supper to follow would be farm-to-table as well. 

Your catering company places emphasis on being hyperlocal. Why is that important?

There are many reasons as to why I believe in sourcing locally and making farm-to-table my focus. The main reason being, these are our people right here. I ask myself, what do I believe in so strongly that I choose to make that into a profession?  What if I didn’t follow my heart?  Well, what if they didn’t?  So instead of focusing on profit only, these small business owners focus on what they believe in.  What speaks to them. How could I believe in following my passion so strongly, and not help support that for others, too? I have a duty at a minimum of being a Cincinnati native, to support my people right here. 

Which chefs have influenced you the most?

Immediately who comes to mind for me (and not all) is Chef Jeff Harris at Nolia, Chef Jose Salazar and Chef Sam Mischenko when he was the chef for Lonely Pine Steakhouse.  All of those men, from what I have personally experienced, run a beautiful space and I don’t mean the aesthetics.

I was at a farm that Chef Jeff Harris was the guest chef for that evening and, WOW. I LOVE watching people under pressure; this man was so cool. He was all smiles not just to the guests, but to his staff. A smile isn’t easy to fake in the kitchen when you’re under pressure. It wasn’t a calm demeanor like, “I know I make good food.”  There was a deeper kindness and purpose to his demeanor, like, “No matter what, today is a good day and I love y’all. And…we make really, really good food. Why? Because we start with love.” I probably would leave the food scene if this thought wasn’t a reality, because that attitude is the reason I am here. 

Chef Jose Salazar has always been viewed as a mentor in my mind.  When I first became the Executive Chef at Turner Farm, Chef Salazar offered a coffee and a chat to help me ease into that role.  I had followed some chefs in town for a while before I started cooking, because I had been on the front of house side of the restaurant business while I was in school.  I knew he was high up in the city food scene, and I was not plugged in at all. One of the coolest things about Chef Jose is that he is sober. I have a decade of recovery in some shape or form, under my belt, and have always found the thought comforting that another chef (there are probably more) doesn’t drink alcohol either. I don’t know if people realize that sobriety isn’t always the easiest lifestyle in the restaurant industry. 

I have the most experience with observing Chef Sam Mischenko’s style because he’s actually cooked for me. He really hooked my family up. Sam treated us to a lamb dish (we’re Greek, that was such a nice gift), came out to talk to us, explained the cattle and the farm the meat came from, and explained the beauty in sourcing locally. To cap it off, he made us all some mean Filet. I am not the best anything, but I know I can throw down on some farm-to-table fare, and when it is returned–like he didn’t miss one beat down to the edible flowers– I am so impressed.

Every chef is different. The way I am wired and what I care about in life, not just food, is connection with people and connection to self.  If you can get all of that in a spot you went for supper, but you left with the rest? Yea… it’s not just about the plate. Kudos to those chefs and all who make the difference.

Which local vendors have a seat at the table for your farm-to-table recipes?

I have a lot more discernment than I used to and I am a huge believer in reciprocity in the industry.  I intentionally choose who to support. Some of my favorite vendors are listed below, but I undoubtedly will forget many.  

  • North South Baking Co. The owner Kate is not from here, no investors, doesn’t come from a cushion of cash, and is really making a name for herself and along the way is just so humble.  She truly believes the key to success is nurturing the beginning stages. , “It’s okay to move slow, it’s okay to turn down business, and it is always okay to pause your business and refocus on yourself and what is important to you as an individual.” Lastly, she donates fresh bread loaves weekly to My Why’s “Pay what you can” Farm Market we run in Price Hill and the West End. 
  • Rich Life Farm & Fungi When I met them when I moved home from Maine in 2020, Emalee and Pete were just so relaxed, slingin’ mushrooms at the market and then they went BOOM! Even when I was at the farm in need of large orders, they were already maxed out to so many spots in the city.  That was so awesome.  And still is. I now eat their mushrooms AND take their tinctures. People ask me if those tinctures of Lion’s Mane and/or Reishi work, and I know they do. I’ve taken so many different medicines from the VA and all along the way maybe I needed something more natural, that made more sense. No information on mushrooms that I have ever read, has left me confused, only interested in a natural way of healing.
  • CinSoy I care SO much about kindness in the industry. Sam and his team really, really took that to a whole new meaning.  They had a huge spot in my heart (always will) but dang, I really feel like I am grieving a big loss that they will no longer be in business.  Their energy was just that good. It was medicinal to me. None of us know all that much about one another. Why what matters to us, does. So kindness and representation of others is a big deal to me.  I most definitely feel a void. 
  • Heather at Mad Cheese
  • Jessica at Beyond Grain Bakery
  • Jess at Zoftig Bakehouse
  • Chef Kayla Robison
  • Abbi at Tickety-Boo Treats
  • Flowers by Shannon
  • Theresa Hill Ferrari at Mom ‘n ’em
  • Redden’s Fine Meats & Seafood (Madeira)
  • Harvest Market (Milford)
  • Branstrator Farm (up north near Mason)
  • Adesso Coffee and Red Tree Coffee

These are all people with businesses and/or chefs that have always been genuinely supportive and have an amazing production going. I seek out as much local product as I can. I support many other cattle farms, produce farms, flower farms, other local vendors, but those mentioned above I have really enjoyed building relationships with. I care about the person behind the product and the business. I care about their authenticity.  

How has your experience in the military set the stage for you as a chef? 

My father was a Green Beret so I grew up with a certain set of values that didn’t seem very common at that younger age. After high school, I began working for the AmeriCorps NCCC immediately following Hurricane Katrina. When that year of disaster relief ended, a month later I shipped off to boot camp for the Coast Guard. I did very well and was offered a rare position on a training vessel that sailed around the world, building public relations. I had no idea when I reported to the USCGC EAGLE that the Captain would make me the Master Helmsman, which meant I docked a 295-foot ship in every foreign country we pulled into. It was a huge responsibility! After my service in the Coast Guard ended, I joined the Army, another intense experience.

Having gone from one intense experience to another while I served in the military, I felt like a could handle a lot of responsibility and pressure. After being at Turner Farm for two months, I was offered the Executive Chef position without any experience catering 50-person events or running a teaching kitchen. It was no surprise that I said, “Yep, I can handle that role.”

I love your engagement with My Why Cincinnati. How did you become involved and what is in store for 2024?

Earlier this year I ran into a woman at a yoga class who I had met almost 20 years earlier. Her name was Mary Beth Knight. When she asked what I was up to, I was honest with her. I shared that I was a personal chef doing farm-to-table suppers, but the work was feeling less meaningful to me at the moment. She said something along the lines of, “If you want, check out what I’m up to, it may change your mind.” 

I heard from her the following Monday. Tuesday, we met at the farm in Price Hill. Wednesday, she invited me to Garden Club, an after-school program at Hays Porter Elementary School in the West End, where they teach kids how to grow their own food. It was the most intense afternoon I had experienced in a long time.  To be honest, nothing had touched my soul that deeply since the slaughter of a large animal I had done solo in 2021 at the farm. That was a powerful, spiritual experience. I had found it to be necessary. And so was this. 

I knew I had landed my new mission in the civilian world.  I had been searching for a mission I could put my energy into, an energy that isn’t suited for something without underserved people in need of a fight for their livelihood. Today, I fight for the children who don’t have access to real food. I fight for their future. It begins with proper education and nutrition, that they don’t have. It’s not a level playing field. And what’s the absolute worst is that these bright-eyed kids have no control in the matter. This was the hand they were dealt. So, the opportunity 35 years later presented itself to know more, and I took a chance to contribute good to a broken system. These are our people. They are humans. And they deserve all the opportunity to eat fresh food, just like I do. Just like you do. Period.

Thanks to Mary Beth and My Why Cincinnati, it’s finally all coming together. My fight, my love, my purpose-it all is one now. My Why is completely voluntary and it’s my primary focus now. We are in the process of raising funds for a Teaching Kitchen/Market in the West End, a market in walking distance for those in the area. I will still cater private farm-to-table suppers for people who care, if my schedule allows.

Where can people connect and learn more about your catering offerings?

Most people see what I am up to via Instagram @chefkatydturner, but don’t forget to check out My Why Cincinnati. My Why is at the forefront of my mission–supporting local looks a whole lot different these days.

Looking for more local food and drink? Go here.