George Zappas is the executive chef at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel downtown, overseeing all culinary activities at Orchids at Palm Court, the Palm Court Grille and its banquet and catering facilities. In 2018, he took over for Maxime Kien, who departed in September after taking over seven months earlier for Todd Kelly, the chef who first earned Orchids’ Five Diamond ranking.
Zappas is a Pittsburgh native who first came to the Buckeye State to attend Ohio University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He got started cooking at home, where his mother wouldn’t allow processed food.
“There was no Kool-Aid in the house, no sugar cereal,” he said. “My colleagues now think that was crazy, but that’s how it was.”
It was at OU that Zappas fell in love with cooking, working in the university’s commissary kitchen. When he moved back to Pittsburgh, he started working in proper restaurants where he was mentored by chefs. That’s when he decided to make cooking his career.
When he and his wife moved to Cincinnati, he looked at a list of the top 25 restaurants and put in an application at the first 10 of them. He was offered a job as a line cook at Orchids and never looked back.
Zappas worked his way up the line, from cook to kitchen supervisor to sous chef. He restarted the restaurant’s butchery program. It had been used sporadically by chefs and cooks as needed, but Zappas got it back online full-time to produce house-cured ham and salami, cured lardo and dry-aged beef and duck.
Zappas took the position of director of purchasing under Kelly, a thankless role with an office in the bowels of the Hilton’s basement, as general manager Jason Tyson put it.
He did that, Tyson told me, because he wanted to round out his food and beverage experience with the goal of becoming the director of food and beverage at the Hilton Netherland Plaza or a similar institution.
“I recognized this guy’s talents, just seeing the way – even though he was just the director of purchasing – he was involved in every aspect of the restaurant,” he said. “So we created the role of assistant director of food and beverage for him.”
When Kelly departed Orchids in 2017 to take the top chef position at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta, the hotel launched a national search. It eventually flew seven candidates in to interview for the position, ultimately landing on Kien.
When Kien departed, there was no national search.
“George was the rightful heir,” Tyson said. “We saw how talented he is and his passion for the hotel and that he started there. He grew with the evolution of Orchids and he really gets it.”