Chef Nick LaRosa’s Nook Kitchen recently moved from the Gaslight Square to a newly renovated building on Indian School near 40th Street. Arcadia News caught up with the New England-born restauranteur to see what’s cooking in the new year.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Connecticut and moved out here in 2004…because you can’t shovel sunshine.
How long have you been a chef?
I’ve cooked basically my whole life. I think I’m on the path to becoming a good chef but I really don’t consider myself a chef yet. Even though people call me “chef” and that’s my title. I work in an industry where you’re always learning, growing, getting better and stronger. To be called “chef” is an honor; it’s something you earn from time and experience, and if I keep doing what I’m doing I’ll be on that path, but I really don’t consider myself a chef…yet.
Where did you go to culinary school?
I went to Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. Basically, the two culinary/hospitality schools are CIA (Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY) and Johnson & Wales. Every year they go back and forth for number one culinary school. It’s like a war that they have – like the Red Sox and the Yankees – it’s a rivalry.
Did you always know you wanted to work in a kitchen?
My family has always owned restaurants and bars. It’s kind of in my bloodline. Growing up, one of my first jobs was as a dishwasher, but I remember having family get-togethers and I’d be making cocktails when I was like seven or eight years old. I was like the gofer. I would help in the kitchen and then I’d go get beers and then I would do this and that. Everything revolved around food and beverage so this just really came naturally.
Where else have you worked?
After culinary school I worked for Paul Fireman; he owned Reebok at the time, and I worked at his private country club out in Cape Cod. I worked for HMS Host at the airport for nine years as an assistant manager, helping write training manuals and opening up restaurants all over the U.S. That’s where I met Gio Osso, who left before me to open Virtu Restaurant [in Scottsdale]. Through a friend of Gio’s friend, I met my partner, Frank Vairo.
Frank was looking for a chef and Gio said, “Hey, you got to check this guy out, he’s the bee’s knees,” so we struck up a deal and seven years later, I have two restaurants and three bars, with another in the works.
You won the television show Chopped in 2017. Tell us about that experience.
My winning dish was an apple crisp. I had cricket cookie batter, Caribbean jerk seasoning, rose mountain apples and almond yogurt. I made an almond whip with the cookie batter and the yogurt; a Caribbean jerk, almond graham cracker crust; I sautéed the apples and made a crumble and incorporated the cookie batter into the crumble and the whip. I had to sift the cookie batter out because there were literally crickets in there. It was such a weird ingredient.
I feel like I was destined to win that show. Everything that was in the basket I wasn’t too unfamiliar with. It just felt like everything was perfect and I was supposed to win. I filmed Chopped Champions in August of 2018 and that episode came out this January. It takes forever [to come out]!
What is the inspiration behind your recipes?
A lot of them are inspired by my upbringing. I’m Sicilian, so we grew up in a kitchen. That was like the hub of the house. That’s where everybody congregated, that’s where fights happened and that’s where everything was squashed and where deals were made and money was transferred.
Inspiration for my dishes comes from there; they’re classic dishes that I put a flair on or make them my own. I love certain foods and I tend to cook with those foods and make them how I want or how I’d want to eat whatever it is that I’m making.
How would you describe the menu at Nook?
It’s pretty eclectic with a lot of Italian influences. It’s modern American with Italian roots, which is kind of our catchphrase. I’m open to cook whatever I want, so that’s awesome.
How did you move the hugewood fired oven from the old location to the new one?
Very carefully. We actually bought the oven from a place at Desert Ridge that wasn’t open very long. They had dueling ovens, right across from each other and they were just sitting there and being liquidated. We wanted to buy both of them, but the guy had already sold one.
We called a rigging company and they took out the duct work. The legs of the oven are adjustable so we were able to move them, but in order to get the oven into the building, we had to take the windows out, take the tracking out and remove part of the wall on the left side of the building – we broke one of the tiles – and then we put it in on a pallet jack. The oven sat in front for a week before the company was able to come and move it. The complete renovations for the new location took three months.
How did you come up with the restaurant’s name?
It was my partner’s idea. It was based off of – well, our first space was tubular-shaped and thin. It reminded everyone of the breakfast nook at their house. It was small. We wanted it to feel homey and cozy, like a nook at your house.
What is the most challenging part of being a chef?
I would say time management is one of the hardest things. It’s a stressful job. Trying to control food the way that you want it produced and the way you want guests to experience it; it’s hard to relinquish that trust for someone else to do it the way you would expect to do it.
I want things done a certain way and it’s hard to teach people and train them to do that. You either have it or you don’t. It’s like attention to detail, sense of urgency, skill and a lot of experience all rolled up in one. The hardest thing is releasing responsibility to someone else to duplicate what you do.
What is your go-to comfort food?
I hate to say it, but I eat a lot of those Costco peanut butter pretzels. My wife picks them up all the time, and I always seem to grab those first in the kitchen. I don’t eat a lot of my food – people are like “oh, you’re a chef, you must eat so well,” and I do eat well, but I don’t sit and have filet mignon dinners every night. It’s not as glorious as everyone thinks. I eat a lot of bread. I graze; I’m always tasting things. It’s hard to eat a meal when you just got done tasting 12 sauces and four sliced meats and cheeses and all these things.
Who would be your dream dinner guest?
I’ve heard this question before. I’ve said Marilyn Monroe, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain. But now, at the stage that I’m at in my career, I’d like to cook for my grandmother. Just to see what she thinks. Either she would pinch my cheek and say “good job” or she would grab me by the ear and smack me and say “what is this?” Actually, both of my grandmothers were awesome. So, both my grandmothers.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m working! I have twin boys, so I try to spend as much time with them as I possibly can. My wife is always with them, so she needs breaks. I spend time with my family, and I always have a project going on at home. I’m always doing something, whether it’s taking care of the pool or the hot tub or weeding or gardening or building.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
Prepare to work, be prepared to fail, be prepared to get your butt handed to you, prepare to sacrifice. You’ll have to put everything else on the backburner. I think a lot of people don’t think about that. It gets challenging, because it’s a juggling act, so be prepared. If you’re in it for the long haul and you want to be relevant, you want to get better and grow. It’s a lot of dedication and time.