Otto's chef and owner Paul Weckman
Chef Paul Weckman exudes an effortless attitude in work and life, as evidenced by his response to a recent hiccup in the mushroom order at Otto’s in Covington, which came in a little light.
Billy Webb, owner and farmer of Kentucky mushroom farm Sheltowee Farm, was dropping off Weckman’s order, which was only half of what it needed to be because of the recent rain. “We’ll figure it out,” said Weckman, the restaurant’s chef and owner.
Weckman found himself in the restaurant business while working through college at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. As a student, he was taking the path he thought he should, working toward a 9-to-5 type business career. But working nights he fell in love with all aspects of the restaurant industry: the action, the speed and the food.
So at one of the many cruxes in life, Weckman found himself on the verge of graduating and had to decide whether to continue down a business path or follow his passion to culinary school. With this decision weighing on him, he took part of his senior year to study abroad in France in 2002.
His time abroad made him realize that every meal should be an event. There was no fast food in France; most places were quaint, family-owned businesses, offering dining experiences over everything else — slow food. At the time, it was a new philosophy Weckman admired.
After France, he graduated with a degree in Agriculture Economics and Business Administration and found himself entering his young adult life married and expecting twins. His plans for culinary school were sidelined because he needed to get a job. Falling back on his degree, Weckman almost opted for a position at a big-time agro-company.
“Fortunately, that didn’t happen,” he says.
Weckman’s father-in-law, Otto Wolff, also had heartstrings tugging at the idea of a family-owned restaurant. It was ultimately Wolff who found the building in MainStrasse where Otto’s is today, and it was he who looked at Weckman and said, “You’re still young, and before you sell out, try and do this restaurant thing.” Weckman then reached out to his parents and close friends to make it all happen. He moved above the restaurant with his wife and children, creating, in a sense, that old-world life: living and operating a business under one roof.
Since then, Otto’s has grown from the sandwich counter it was 12 years ago to the full-on restaurant it is today, which is what Weckman hoped for.
“I love the fast pace, dangerous dance, high energy that restaurants promote,” he says. “That organized chaos, both in the front and the back of house.”
“I like to stay on the fringe of what’s trendy,” he continues. “I like to constantly reinvent to some extent, whether that’s with the atmosphere, the food, the drink menu or the personality of the artwork on the walls. And Otto’s has certain areas that can move and certain areas that need to stay true to the brand that has been created.”
Otto’s has built a loyal following, but Weckman realizes that to keep his incredible staff, he has to create opportunities for them. Because of that and his family’s deep investment in the community, he’s opening up a second restaurant in Covington called Frida.
Frida, named after Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, will be the first and only mezcal bar in town. Mezcal, of which tequila is a specific type, is really a community-oriented beverage, in both style and process. “Mexican moonshine, they call it,” he says. The restaurant will also offer Latin-inspired street food, boasting tortas, empanadas, tacos and lime-zested wings.
“I want Frida to be a place where you can get something to eat and drink under 20 bucks. Some place that’s casual but with that higher-end social feel,” Weckman says.
Set to open sometime mid-May, Frida is located in a building on the corner of Sixth and Main streets that would have been torn down had Weckman not invested and stabilized it. The pre-Civil War structure now boasts colorful murals of Kahlo on the outside, visible from blocks away. With his second restaurant almost ready to open, Weckman used his experience, passion and commitment to the growing community to do what he seems to do best: just figure it out.
OTTO’S is located at 521 Main St., Covington, Ky. For more information on the restaurant or to learn more about Frida, visit ottosonmain.com.