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Karen Nicolas

Chef Karen Nicolas
Photo © Emily Clack
© Emily Clack

Won Best New Chef at: Equinox, Washington, DC.

Born: 1974; Philadelphia.

Education: Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI.

Experience: Hawthorne Lane, San Francisco; Dry Creek Kitchen, Healdsburg, CA; Gramercy Tavern, New York City.

How she got into the food business: “I used to watch the Great Chefs series on TV; I was fascinated by it. And I was taking home ec classes in high school—we’d make things like brioche and basil pesto. One day, my teacher pulled me aside after a cooking class and said, ‘You’re very good at this—you should pursue something in the industry.’ So I started to think about it.”

Early cooking career: “I used to throw a lot of dinner parties for my high school friends. I didn’t know what I was doing; there was a lot of experiments. One of the most memorable ones was when one of my friends wanted to propose to his girlfriend. I had just gotten my first manual pasta roller. For a young, enthusiastic and novice cook, this was like getting a new car. I made my first-ever handmade raviolis: I stuffed them with chopped shrimp and garnished them with sautéed cherry tomatoes and scallions. It turned out well, for the first time around. And his girlfriend said yes.”

Memorable cooking experience: A week spent cooking at Rockpool in Sydney, Australia, under chef Neil Perry. “I was amazed at all the unfamiliar ingredients.”

Pet peeve: “I’m pretty anal. The first thing I’m about is when cooks start: I want to know how early they get to work. One minute late says everything to me.”

Ingredient obsession: Sorrel. “I’ve been obsessed with it for a while. One of my farmers said no one ever used to use it. I can’t believe that.”

Favorite childhood food: Anything from her mother. “I’m Filipino. Filipino food has not made a big impact here in the US, so it’s rare for me to get to eat it outside of my mom’s kitchen. She makes chicken arroz caldo, a rice dish. It’s an extremely simple version of paella. Chicken quarters are slow-cooked with rice, ginger and onion. I could probably eat that dish every day of my life.”

Cheap eat: Ramen at Toki Underground in Washington, DC. “I get the miso ramen with braised pork cheek and a soft egg. I absolutely must have a soft egg when I eat ramen. I love the combination of noodles, hot broth and oozing egg.”

Guilty pleasure: “I pretty much always have Kashi pizza in my freezer. I usually go for the one with spinach and feta.”

Cooking show: The Great Chefs series. “It was just chefs cooking—doing their thing, not trying to show off. It’s not like that anymore.”

Favorite cocktail: “When I need a real cocktail, I have a Manhattan. And I’m definitely a bourbon girl.”

Fantasy restaurant: “One of my favorite restaurants is Avec in Chicago. I’d do something like that, that plays around with small plates and has good energy.”

What she’d be if she weren’t a chef: “I think the best job in the world has got to be a photographer for National Geographic.”

Favorite reference book: On Food & Cooking, by Harold McGee. “I tell all my cooks they have to get Harold McGee’s book.”

1 recipe by Chef Karen Nicolas
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