Saturday, December 2

Brussels sprouts, bad starts and lessons learned

CINCINNATI — In the private dining room of a restaurant in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Bengals coach Zac Taylor gave in to his instincts.

And that meant trusting the instincts of the E+O Kitchen chef. It was a night in the fall of 2021, and as Taylor’s party settled in, he knew one of the elements he could expect as part of the chef’s choice.

It was a salad with Brussels sprouts and kale, and it’s been a staple for Taylor around town since he arrived as Tommy Tuberville’s offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati in 2016.

It’s a salad that offered Taylor something to look forward to during downtimes, including the Bengals’ worst 2-14 franchise season in 2019, which was Taylor’s first as an NFL head coach. It has been something that Taylor has enjoyed along with the improvement of the team. And if Cincinnati can beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game (3 pm ET, CBS) and make its first Super Bowl in three decades, it’s a dish that will likely be a part of the celebration.

A victory salad might not compare to the cigars that Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has become famous for celebrating with, but there is a metaphor for how the Bengals have transformed from bottom-dweller to a Super Bowl contender in three seasons, it could have something to do with it. with how they learned to eat their vegetables and do the things necessary to build a winner.

It’s called E+O’s Famous Crispy Brussels Sprouts and Kale Salad. Chef Rodelio Aglibot first created the dish at the original E+O location, which stands for “Land and Ocean,” in Chicago, which was purchased and recreated in Cincinnati in 2015.

It’s the culmination of frying kale and Brussels sprouts for 30 and 45 seconds, respectively, and combining them with purple cabbage, red onion, pickled Fresno peppers and jalapeños, white wine poached shrimp, and a chili-lime vinaigrette. Aglibot, who died of a heart attack in 2020, refused to make substitutions. Now, for an $18 plate surcharge, people can swap the shrimp for salmon, steak or chicken.

“From Chef Rod in the skies, it will probably bring me down because I just told you that,” said Tim Weiss, E+O’s chief operating officer.

Taylor loved the original version of the salad when he first came to town, and when the Bengals hired him, after three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams as assistant wide receivers coach and then quarterbacks coach, Taylor wasted no time. very much in finding his way back to E+O.

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“It’s the first meal I had when I took this job when I got back to Cincinnati,” Taylor said. “It’s the first place I went and the first food I tried to get.”

One night during his first offseason, Taylor and Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan went there for an early dinner. Taylor immediately recommended the Brussels sprout salad. The third-year coach said that everyone he had introduced him to had fallen in love with him. Callahan typically ate the vegetables at places “where they basically fry them.” But Taylor insisted that the E+O salad was the best.

“He ordered it and I tried it,” Callahan told ESPN. “He was right. It was fantastic.”

E+O became a preferred choice for lunch delivery among Bengals coaches, joining Chipotle across the Ohio River from Paul Brown Stadium. At least once during the 2019 season, Taylor ordered the Brussels sprout salad for the entire staff on a Thursday night.

For Taylor, the meals provided brief happiness in a miserable year. The Bengals lost the first 11 games of that season, the longest losing streak to start a season in franchise history. By the end of the year, it was clear that Cincinnati was a bad team, nowhere near a playoff contender. And he had a coaching staff that had a lot to learn.

When the Bengals signed Taylor, he had just helped the Rams earn a berth in Super Bowl LIII. Taylor had never been a full-time coordinator in the NFL. Neither did Callahan or Lou Anarumo, who were hired to lead the Bengals’ offense and defense, respectively.

“You don’t really know what you’re made of and you really understand how to resolve work conflicts until you start, and the pressure is really on you to perform and win every week,” Callahan said.

Soon, it became clear that the Bengals needed a complete overhaul to become a competitive team again. After an 0-8 start to 2019, Taylor benched longtime starting quarterback Andy Dalton in favor of rookie fourth-round draft pick Ryan Finley.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Dalton spoke to reporters in the locker room and was frustrated by how close the decision came to the trade deadline, citing the lack of hours for his agent to find him another team. After Finley struggled, Dalton was renamed the starter three games later. The Bengals finished with the worst record in the league and Dalton was eventually released after Cincinnati selected Burrow from LSU with the first overall pick.

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Before Sunday’s game against Kansas City, Taylor said the most important lesson he learned during the 2019 season was the importance of building quality relationships.

“If there is no communication, if there is no relationship between coach and coach, between player and coach [and] there’s no real trust there, it becomes that much harder to be on the same page and get through that adversity,” Taylor said.

The next season provided more difficult moments. A rift between defensive end Carlos Dunlap, one of the best running backs in franchise history, and the coaching staff grew so deep that Dunlap forced the Bengals into an uncharacteristic midseason trade. Then Burrow, the starting quarterback as a rookie, and defensive tackle DJ Reader, the most expensive free-agent signing in team history at the time, suffered season-ending injuries.

“The buildup of those two years of hardship has galvanized our team, really made it stronger and put them in a place where they said, ‘You know what? We’re capable of more,'” Callahan said.

“‘We can be better.'”



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There were two times Cincinnati could have fallen apart during the 2021 season. After winning seven of their first nine games, the Bengals lost twice before their Week 10 bye, including a loss to the New York Jets that was a One of the worst upsets in franchise history. Cincinnati also had a two-game skid in November (losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers) that dropped the Bengals to 7-6 and threatened their playoff chances.

But the patience Bengals management showed in Taylor and the core parts of his coaching staff paid off as Cincinnati clinched the AFC North and its first playoff berth since 2015. The Bengals rallied to win three of their last four games, including a thrilling 34-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs that allowed Cincinnati to rest their starters as they lost to the Cleveland Browns in the Week 18 finale.

Speaking after the win over Kansas City, Burrow said he was won over by Taylor when the two first met at the 2020 scouting combine, their only in-person interaction before the draft.

“I knew exactly where I wanted to be,” Burrow said. “He’s a great offensive mind and a great leader of men. He does a great job and couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, a holdover from the previous coaching staff who has been with Cincinnati since 2003, said it has been a “litmus test” for many staffers adjusting to new roles. But Simmons praised Taylor’s ability to gain complete control of the locker room after being an offensive position coach for most of his time in the NFL.

“He’s taken a big step this year in really learning how to control the whole team,” Simmons said. “I think that’s fantastic. I think it was different early in his time here because he’s never had to deal with it.”

Callahan said that when the staff arrived in 2019, they knew that failure would be a part of their growth. But without it, Cincinnati might not be one game away from a Super Bowl.

“It’s a sustainable way of building something, when you really start from scratch and dive into everything with everything you’ve got,” Callahan said. “And you fail miserably, which we did, particularly that first year.

“It wasn’t everything we hoped for and we thought it could be for a million reasons. But we ended up where we did.”

As the Bengals marched to their first AFC Championship Game appearance since 1989, E+O’s Brussels sprout salad has remained a constant part of Taylor’s diet.

Taylor and his wife, Sarah, continue to be frequent customers of E+O. Callahan and his wife, Allyson, visit the restaurant in Hyde Park about once a month and order takeout once a week.

“Door Dash has a lot of my money,” Callahan said.

Ben Toney, the restaurant’s 39-year-old corporate chef, is a Cincinnati native and agreed that E+O’s signature salad is a big hit in a city where the most famous food is Cincinnati-style chili.

“That’s why this restaurant is as successful as it is today,” Toney said.

It’s the food that has sustained Taylor from the lowest points in franchise history to the pinnacle of greatness. And he won’t be shy about putting pressure on others either.

“You have to try it for yourself,” Taylor said. “It’s pretty good”.

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