Douglas Katz Can't Stop Cooking Douglas Katz Can't Stop Cooking
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Douglas Katz is stumped. The chef is working on his newest menu, and the problem isn’t that he can’t come up with anything; it’s that he has so many options to choose from. In the past, his menus have featured dishes such as eggplant bharta, a smoky, roasted vegetable mash bejeweled with cherry tomatoes; crispy chickpea fritters served with a tangy plum amba dipping sauce; seared lingcod with bright red tamarind sambar, a lentil-based stew; warm, spiced cashews in garlic and ginger; and chicken masala made with sweet Kashmiri chilis. 

Katz plans on finishing the menu just in time for the 51-year-old to open the doors to Amba, his Indian-fusion concept located in Hingetown, later this year or early next year. 

“The idea is that there are familiar tastes, textures and flavors that people will enjoy and that maybe they’ve never experienced before,” he says. “We’re not looking to share an esoteric take on food. There will be some familiarity in what we create.”

Whatever the final menu, one thing is for certain: Each dish will be plated to perfection, served as composed small plates so precise and balanced that they double as modern art. They’ll be as colorful as they are flavorful, in exactly the style that Clevelanders have come to expect from Katz, a mainstay Cleveland restaurateur of more than two decades. 

The renowned chef is perhaps best known for Fire Food and Drink, the iconic fine dining restaurant he ran for 20 years in the heart of Shaker Square until its unceremonious closure near the start of the pandemic. Popular for its seasonal offerings, sustainable practices and inventive, impeccable dishes, Fire’s food earned Katz a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef of the Great Lakes Region in 2014. But at its core, it was community that made Fire so popular. Katz intended it to be a gathering place for neighbors to become friends while bonding over the kind of food that, for a long time, you couldn’t get just anywhere in Cleveland.

Ever the extrovert, he thrived on the hustle and bustle of it all by getting to know his customers, staying hyper-involved with his staff and always working at breakneck speed behind the scenes. 

“I have a personality that can handle a lot at once,” Katz says. “The restaurant business experience is such that every Saturday night, you’re making decisions on the fly, you’re always addressing things — your mind is set up to deal with everything thrown at you.”

That kind of nimble adaptiveness has kept him in perpetual motion throughout his career. It’s also the reason he’s remained so successful despite the pandemic. 

Katz launched Amba in November 2020 out of the commercial-grade kitchen in Cleveland Heights that long served as the home base of his Fire Catering Co., which also shuttered amid the pandemic for lack of events to cater. Ever the agile entrepreneur, Katz acted quickly, launching two ghost kitchens in the space instead. 

The first was Chimi, named for the piquant Argentinian condiment chimichurri; the second was Amba, whose name comes from a zingy yellow sauce made of pickled South Asian mangoes. 

“My interest has always been in spices and ethnic cuisines, but my love of South American and Indian cuisine had been on the back burner while I ran other restaurants,” he says. “Suddenly I had a catering commissary sitting empty, which presented an opportunity to start working on new concepts and allowed me to keep my employees on during the pandemic.”

Modeled after successful ghost kitchens run in larger cities, Katz was banking on the unique challenges of quarantine to boost Chimi and Amba’s appeal in Cleveland, where the trend had yet to catch on. For the duration of their pandemic runs, both restaurants remained takeout- and delivery-only, with no physical space available to the public. Their branding existed almost solely online, relying on social media and word-of-mouth for advertising. 

The restaurants worked — so well, in fact, that even before pandemic restrictions eased, Katz started scouting brick-and-mortar spaces. He landed on a home for Amba first: Hingetown’s once-abandoned Schaefer Printing Co. building, known for its colorful, 130-foot tiger mural that runs the length of one side. Now, just over a year since its initial debut, Amba nears its unveiling as a bona fide brick-and-mortar, offering upscale, creative food in a light-hearted, communal atmosphere — the style of dining that Katz believes is the way of the future. 

“I think every experience moving forward, including restaurants, is going to be casualized,” he says. “As restaurant owners, I think we have to pivot to realize that’s what the future is.”

Katz opened Fire in 2001 in the heart of Shaker Square. Then 31, the Shaker Heights native had more than two years under his belt as the inaugural executive chef of another acclaimed local spot: Moxie in Beachwood, owned by Brad Friedlander and Craig Sumers. Although he loved it, he knew he wanted a restaurant of his own. 

“I thought, Why am I doing this for other people? Why not do it for myself?” he says. “Shaker Square was being renovated, and I had great love for the community. It’s like it was speaking to me: That’s where I needed to open a restaurant.”

He’d dreamed of being a culinary entrepreneur since 13, when he used the leftover custom stationery he’d received for his bar mitzvah to print catering menus created from his mom’s cookbook recipes. Word spread quickly among his parents’ friends and his friends’ parents alike: He was a one-man caterer worth hiring.  

“My parents let me cook for their dinner parties, and my best friend’s parents hated cooking, so I cooked for their dinner parties, too,” he recalls. “I had the most amazingly supportive parents, and I lived in a great community, and I don’t take lightly that I was given these opportunities.”

At 16, after he catered an elegant, multicourse meal complete with wine pairings, a local food critic penned a feature about him for The Plain Dealer. By the time he left for college, he was booked for so many catering gigs that he had to hire friends to help staff the events, which included a 100-person wedding.

Katz went on to attend The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and picked up restaurant experience, too, starting at Zack Bruell’s Z Contemporary Cuisine and moving through stints in Boston, Portland, Oregon, and Aspen, Colorado. When he returned to Cleveland in 1997 and became Moxie’s executive chef, Katz created the menu for what quickly became an iconic East Side spot — and gained the confidence to strike out on his own. Within three years, the skills that served him so well as a teenager came back in full force, driving him to open Fire.

For two decades, Fire was Katz’s flagship restaurant, raking in local and national praise while, behind the scenes, he tested out other endeavors, too. There was the short-lived Katz Club Diner, a casual restaurant and bar that evolved into a pop-up locale after it closed, long before the present-day trend. For a few years, he operated Fire Spice Co., creating recipe boxes for people to create their own delicious, globally inspired meals at home. In the final months of 2019, Katz opened Zhug in Cleveland Heights to great acclaim — a Middle Eastern meze spot offering a modern, buzzy dining experience built around shareable plates, fun cocktails and a trendy, big-city atmosphere. He was still running Fire, as well as Provenance, the restaurant at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the now-defunct Chutney B., a fast-casual stand inside the Van Aken District Market Hall. Plus, his fast-paced catering business served hundreds of meals a week to the staff and players of the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

In short, running himself ragged was a way of life for Katz, and it was one he’d always enjoyed. Still, he was tired. Really tired.  

He saw his wife, Karen, and their teenage twins, Amelia and Abe, during too few waking hours. He didn’t get to indulge in his favorite hobby, pottery-making, as often as he’d like. And his mind — that of a creative, extroverted chef with keen business acumen and a bit of an obsession with spices — never stopped spinning.  

“I was on a roller coaster that, really, I couldn’t get off of,” Katz says. “When you’re in busy mode, living every day like that, you don’t really have an opportunity to take a breath and realize you’re too immersed in everything.” 

What a difference a year has made. 

When the pandemic hit, Katz and his business partner, Todd Thompson, made the difficult decision to shutter Fire, which had been going strong right up until lockdown hit. Emotionally, it wasn’t an easy move, but financially, it was the only option. Plus, they had their doubts about how the fine dining industry would rebound — or not — when the pandemic eventually came to an end. 

“It became clear to us that it was not the model we wanted to move forward with, in part because it was too expensive,” Katz says. “People loved Fire, and we loved Fire, and it’s become a great memory for us. But it was the right time to say goodbye.”

Fortunately, Zhug had amassed a following when the pandemic descended, and Katz’s team was able to keep the lights on — and the homebound diners happy — by turning to a takeout-only model. It was an approach Katz says couldn’t have worked with Fire, with its white-tablecloth ambiance and upscale menu, but Zhug’s vibe translated well into home dining. 

“Zhug has this fun, super-energetic feel,” he says. “You’re meant to be entertained, which we kept in mind as we used social media [to promote carryout], and that helped us stay relevant.”

Still, quarantine presented Katz with a far less busy lifestyle than he’d experienced in years, and he wasn’t sure what to do. The roller coaster had stopped mid-ride, and he found himself marveling at the view. “In a way, I felt a sense of relief,” he says. “There was nothing else that I had to do.”

Instead, with more downtime than ever, he started asking himself what he wanted to do. He spent more time cooking for his family, finally mastering the smaller-scale meals that had eluded him after a life of catering and restaurants. They even briefly toyed with the idea of moving to Colorado, which he’d fallen in love with while attending the University of Denver as an undergrad. 

“Doug had been on a roller coaster of success, but the pandemic forced him to slow down and stop, which was a real shock to his system,” says his wife, Karen. “But he loves being busy; he’s meant for going from place to place and meeting to meeting. I knew that if the opportunity were in front of him, he was going to jump right back onto the roller coaster. He loves it, he thrives on it and he’s good at it.”

Though Amba will be Katz’s first restaurant focused on Indian flavors, it’s far from his first time cooking Indian cuisine. In fact, Amba was born of a series of traditional Indian dinners he hosted at Fire with talented home chef Radhika Rajwade. 

It was Rajwade, the mother of one of Katz’s children’s friends, who first introduced Katz to the ins and outs of Indian cuisine, and her influence on his culinary style has been immeasurable. In the late 2000s, the two chefs developed a close friendship built around their mutual love of spices and hospitality. Though Katz had long been using Fire’s tandoor oven to make wood-fired dishes and pizzas, Rajwade taught him how to use it for traditional Indian cooking and how to toast and grind Indian spices that expanded his palate and his cooking repertoire. 

“Most of my recipes came from my grandmother’s kitchen in India,” Rajwade says. “Doug made sure those recipes were never compromised or fused with non-Indian elements. He remained true to those recipes and they always remained authentic.” 

Together, the two chefs started hosting seven-course Indian dinners at Fire, featuring Rajwade as the guest chef behind sumptuous dishes such as spicy Kerala fish curry with coconut milk; homemade paneer, a firm cheese, in a curried pea and almond gravy; and kheema biryani, a dish of minced, spiced goat with fragrant saffron rice and crispy onions. At these six sold-out dinners, guests sat family-style at long tables peppered with tiny, porcelain dishes holding a rainbow of chutneys. Dessert, for those who had room, included delicacies such as mango ice cream with cardamom-pistachio cookies and kheer, a sweet rice pudding. 

“I remember Doug having burn marks on his hands from using the tandoor,” Rajwade says. “That was his passion for the cuisine.”

For Katz, the meals marked a turning point in his career.

“The more that I introduced myself to Indian flavors and learned how to use Indian ingredients, the more I wanted to find ways to keep learning,” he says. 

When Rajwade announced that her family was moving to India in 2011, Katz embraced the opportunity to experience authentic Indian cuisine in-person, booking a trip for him and Karen to visit their friends. In a restaurant tucked down the busy, narrow streets of Old Delhi, they indulged in wazwan, a multicourse Kashmiri meal heavy on mutton, beef and chicken. At the Pench Tiger Reserve, they slept in luxury tents and enjoyed the cuisine of Madhya Pradesh, even organizing a private cooking session with the in-house chef. And they dined in style at the luxury Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur (which can be accessed only by motorboat), where renowned Mewari chefs prepared Rajasthani dishes made with locally sourced ingredients. Wherever they went, they tried it all.

“We would order almost every single dish on the menu, and my husband would be worried about food waste,” Rajwade says. “Doug and I never disappointed, as we went through each dish!” 

Katz repeatedly returned to spicy laal maas, a dish made with braised tender goat meat with red chiles that Rajwade says is not for the faint-hearted. Katz put chutneys on everything, with a preference for the spicy green hari chutney made of serrano chiles. And after spending three weeks eating his way through Northern India, his love affair with the country’s cuisine only grew. 

“When you’re not from a place, you’re a stranger to it. You may love it, but you feel anxiety that you can’t make the food in your own kitchen,” he says. “When I was able to go to India and learn from Radhika and so many others, I felt more confident to be able to bring it home.”

As indoor dining experiences make a comeback, Katz, a self-described control freak, is approaching restaurant management a little differently this time by stepping back and letting Cameron Pishnery, the longtime executive chef at Fire, and the team shine. 

“For me right now, it’s about growing skills and opportunity for other people. I don’t need to prove myself in this city anymore,” says Katz. “I feel like I can pass the torch a little bit — and that’s really exciting.”

Pishnery will now be Katz’s executive chef at Amba. Together they’re parsing through the ghost kitchen’s most popular offerings, along with the many Indian recipes Katz has come to love throughout the years, to envision the new menu.

The possibilities are vast, with dozens of past dishes to choose from: creamy, green-flecked spinach raita topped with chickpeas and black sesame seeds; grilled paneer, stark white on the inside and tossed in a creamy chickpea curry with green peas, pickled Fresno chiles and fresh cilantro; crunchy golden samosas served with small tins of deep purple tamarind sauce and minty green chutney — the kind of dishes that serve up an experience on a plate. 

And while the final product will undoubtedly reflect his decade of Indian cooking, including dishes influenced by Rajwade’s grandmother’s recipes, Katz isn’t comfortable calling Amba an Indian restaurant.

“It’s really Indian fusion because I don’t want people to think I’m trying to be an expert in this cuisine,” he says. “I’ve just been lucky enough to experience India, and I love having fun with food, so we’re doing Indian flavors, but not necessarily an authentic Indian experience.”

He aims to create a roster of offerings that highlights the best of Indian spices and flavors, melding the country’s diverse regional fare with modern American creativity — a variety of small plates to be ordered en masse and shared around the table with family and friends. 

Amba’s decor, too, will be carefully curated to usher in a new era of dining focused on communal joy and culinary discovery — there will be no white tablecloth to be found. Expect clean lines and cozy spaces outfitted in a rich color palette that features a wood bar, cement floors, black tile work and a rope ceiling. Thoughtful use of dim lighting will evoke a shadowy, dramatic mood.

“You’ll really feel almost encapsulated in this experience when you’re in the space,” Katz says. 

Thompson, now Amba’s director of operations, reiterates their commitment to an immersive dining experience.

“When you go to a restaurant, you want to be a part of something, to sit down with friends and experience something a little bit larger than yourself,” he says. “You want it to be better than Instagram can ever be — a room full of people having a good time, listening to music, sharing great food, having a cocktail. You want to feel the energy of it.” 

When it’s all said and done, that’s the crux of Douglas Katz’s style: great food and palpable energy.

Now, as Amba’s grand opening date approaches later this year or early next year, he reflects on his long and varied career and looks to this new phase with his characteristic enthusiasm for what’s to come. 

He’s ready for a new era in dining, and he’s ready for Amba to lead the way. 

“Think fun and exciting — the new Roaring ’20s,” he says. “We all have to add that entertainment and fun element to our experiences moving forward. There’s still a place for serious dining, but if you’re not offering the entertainment factor, you’re not going to be at the top.”

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