If you ask Thom Milliken what his specialty is, you shouldn’t expect a simple answer. The executive chef of The Polo Grille in Mason loves to experiment. He’ll pick something for a menu he knows nothing about, just so he can learn something new.

So, what’s his specialty? It would probably be “taking something that everyone understands and putting a twist on it that makes it interesting,” he says. “That’s the fun part, coming up with new things, finding ways to do things in your own style.”

But Milliken is the first to admit that finding your own style can take time. A Cincinnati native, Milliken graduated from the Cincinnati Culinary Academy in 1993. Afterward, it took him a few years to decide he wanted to be a chef. Once he did, however, success soon followed. Milliken was an executive chef at Ciao Cucina, now closed, for a few years in the late ’90s and was also a partner at his own seafood market, The Outer Banks Seafood Market in Mariemont, from 1998 until 2004, when The Polo Grille opened and hired him.

At the time, Tavern Restaurant Group, which owns The Polo Grille, sent Milliken to London to try some authentic pub grub. “I went there not expecting to like the food, but it was just really good food done well,” he says.

In addition to serving up some surprises, London also taught Milliken not to complicate dishes. “As a young chef, you like to pull out all the ingredients and do something no one’s ever seen,” he says. “It’s taken me some time to get to the point of just doing simple food really well and being OK with it.”

The chef also takes his talents to the community, participating in charity events and teaching local cooking classes through venues such as Cooks’ Wares and the Midwest Culinary Institute. The classes, he says, are “really fun to do. I can talk about food all day.”

Although Milliken admits one of his favorite things about his profession is that there’s always something you don’t know, he cautions aspiring chefs that there are a few things they should know. “This is a tough business. People should know how hard it is coming into it,” he warns. “That being said, it takes a love for the business to do this, and if you’ve got it, it can be very rewarding.” But, he adds, “it takes a special kind of nut.”