Q&A: Meet Taste Hospitality's new culinary director

Shelley Mann, Columbus Alive

Taste Hospitality, the group that runs Hubbard Grille and Mezzo, recently named chef Connor O'Neill as its new culinary director. The Columbus native has already tweaked the menu at Mezzo's surviving Dublin location, and he has ambitious plans to transform Hubbard into a small plates-centric culinary hotspot on High.

O'Neill, who graduated from Grandview Heights High School, started out washing dishes and bussing tables at Scioto Country Cub in high school. After an Army stint, he returned home and completed a five-year apprenticeship under chef Paul Yow at Barcelona. "I was an apprentice, a fill-in baker and a sous chef, and Paul was a father figure," O'Neill said.

After Barcelona, O'Neill headed to L.A., where he helped launch the innovative Mendocino Farms Sandwich Market. There, his scratchmade sandwiches earned him many national accolades. He went on to work at a couple other spots across the country before a health scare and a family emergency got him looking for kitchen opportunities back home in Columbus. I chatted with O'Neill to find out more.

Q: How'd you end up in this role?

I found out they were looking for a chef at Hubbard Grille. For someone who grew up in Columbus, that restaurant space is gorgeous. Even when the building was just a building, before Rosendales went in there, I wanted to buy it.

I went in to interview for the Hubbard job, and Sheila Trautner [Taste Hospitality's president] decided I'd be a better fit to be the chef for all the restaurants. I really can't tell you how lucky I feel about it. I have the attention span of a paperclip, so I'm always looking for something new and different to do. This offers so many venues for that type of thing.

Q: So are you still hiring a new chef for Hubbard?

I don't like to hire managers, I like to promote from within. We are training the existing kitchen staff to become the new chefs and sous chefs. I like to hire dishwashers, and I'm looking for people with too much ego without much reason to have that much ego.

Q: What changes should we watch for?

Mezzo has a new menu now. We just made some small changes, added some new flavors. People really love that menu, and that's what's made it a great success. At Hubbard, they haven't had a new menu in a long time. With where it is, in the Short North, and the style of the restaurant, it's going to be our crown jewel.

Our new menu will come out a week from Tuesday. I'm going for more of a small plates feel. When I go out to eat with my wife, I always want to get four appetizers and still get an entree, but that's too expensive. My goal is to make a less expensive small plates menu, with flavors that are a little different from what people are expecting.

Q: How would you describe the cuisine?

I'm calling it a Dirty South trip to California cuisine. It will be very eclectic, but true American food, so a melting pot. It will definitely have some Southern, some Asian, some California cuisine. I think the beauty of American cuisine is it can be whatever you say it is.

Q: Will you keep Hubbard's fried chicken?

Yes, it'll stay. And the blackened snapper, that's one of our better dishes. Everything else is up for grabs. The way I like to do a menu is I make up specials and sell them to our guests, and then the guests decide the menu.