This is part one of my interview with Aniedra Nichols, exec chef of Elway's Cherry Creek; part one of our conversation will run tomorrow.
"Instead of watching cartoons, I was either glued to all of the old cooking shows, like Great Chefs, Yen Can Cook, Justin Wilson and Julia Child, or in the kitchen with my grandma, who was always baking and cooking," recalls Aniedra Nichols, today the executive chef at Elway's Cherry Creek. In fact, by the age of five, the Arizona native was already doing her own thing in the kitchen. "I remember making sugar cookies when I was really, really young, and while they turned out flat, in my mind they looked gorgeous, especially with the sprinkles," she says.
See also: Ten best restaurants in Cherry Creek
Still, Nichols's fascination with cooking didn't morph into a career until after college. "I went to college to study physical therapy, but somewhere along the line I found myself in limbo, and in the middle of trying to figure out my life, my mom asked me what I'd want to be doing if I were doing it for free -- what my real passion was -- and the answer was cooking," says Nichols, who then enrolled in the culinary curriculum at the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales.
And when she wasn't in the classroom, she was putting in time at André's Confiserie Suisse, a longstanding patisserie in Cherry Creek, where she worked throughout culinary school. Nichols also did an externship at the long-gone Fourth Story, which is where she met Tyler Wiard. And when Wiard left the Fourth Story to become the chef at the now-shuttered Mel's Bar and Grill, Nichols followed, starting as a line cook and then transitioning into an events-coordinator role. "I knew how to cook, but I hadn't worked front-of-house, and I wanted to learn every aspect of the restaurant business," explains Nichols, who eventually departed Mel's to become the general manager of Bistro Vendôme, a stint that continued to give her restaurant experience beyond the burners. "I figured that if I ever wanted to open a restaurant sometime in the future, I'd need to know the business side of how a restaurant works," she remembers, "and while I don't have my own restaurant, it was a great experience to draw from if I ever do."
A year into her tenure at Bistro Vendôme, she was ready to return to the kitchen, so she reached out to Wiard, now the culinary director at Elway's Cherry Creek -- and while the only position he had available was as a fry cook, she didn't hesitate. "I was so ready to get back into the kitchen -- that's where I belong -- and I think Tyler is phenomenal, so even though it wasn't the exact job I wanted, I knew I had to take it," says Nichols, who moved up the ladder to sous-chef, executive sous-chef and, last December, exec chef. "Every day is full of new surprises, and working at Elway's has taken me places and opened so many doors for me, like being at the Beard House and becoming a member of FIVE; we're all part of something huge," says Nichols, who in the following interview asks diners not to be afraid of ingredients, recounts the night she chopped off her finger and explains why she's not afraid to make mistakes.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Aniedra Nichols: When we lived overseas, Frank, our neighbor, loved mussels, and he and his family would eat dinner with their door open, so the smell of garlic -- it was so strong -- would waft downstairs and onto the street and into our house. We could also hear the sound of Frank slurping his mussels -- he definitely enjoyed them -- and I remember the first time I got to witness the orchestra firsthand; it was intriguing.
Ten words to describe you: Loyal, passionate, committed, funny, fortunate, hardworking, trustworthy, honest, perfectionist and independent.
Five words to describe your food: Simple, seasonal, thoughtful, balanced and straightforward.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Lime, black pepper, garlic and hot sauce.
One ingredient you won't touch: Celery seed. I can't say that I haven't used it, but I dislike it a lot. If it's not used sparingly, it overpowers a dish, not to mention your mouth.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'm excited to see more independent restaurants and chefs who are emerging into their own spaces and showcasing their own food with no restrictions.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: The term "modern American," as well as burgers and tacos. Let's face it: Burgers and tacos are great -- if, that is, they're done well. But they aren't as easy to execute as you might think. If they aren't mind-blowing, they're nothing more than just a burger and a taco.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: The grill, because it's multi-purposeful and imparts a particular flavor to an ingredient that can bring a dish to fruition.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: The smell of strawberries cooking and the scent you get form sautéing onions and garlic.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Learning something new every day. I've been fortunate to learn under some amazing chefs during my career, and I have to say that the camaraderie that the Denver culinary scene exudes is a pretty awesome thing to be a part of. And all the people I get to meet? That's pretty cool, as well. And now that I have the forum, I'd like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all of you who have been a part of my growth. You're all amazing.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? Managing a large staff, all with different personalities, is a big challenge. It takes some inner strength to understand each personality, and you must have a diplomatic approach, because you don't want to make people feel small.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Please don't be afraid of ingredients. The way we chefs build a dish is meaningful, and we want you to understand and appreciate the way it's constructed, so please don't season your food until you've tasted it first. And don't be afraid to try everything together when you're served a composed dish -- go ahead, because it will make sense when you do.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Honesty is good; a blatant attack just to make headlines is uncalled for. We're trying our best, and it's hard to read about your peers, let alone yourself, when the words are so harsh.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Lunch at Chez Panisse in 2008. There's nothing better than two friends sharing nine plates at lunch in San Francisco and scaring your server because he can't believe that two women can actually eat that much. Then again, it could be dinner at a random Korean barbecue joint with three of your friends in San Francisco...because that happened the night before the lunch.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: I love Fruition because it's consistently consistent, and I have to go there with every menu change, which is quarterly. I also like New Saigon, because they just know what they're doing, and I do love a good bowl of pho, along with their grilled pork with rice papers and hot-and-sour soup; I like Asian food in general. I'm a sucker, too, for a great pasta dish or three at Barolo Grill. I loved going there when Brian Laird was the chef; he's Denver's pasta king. And now that Darrel Truett has taken over the reins, he's killing it with the pasta and the menu. He's a talented chef and a great guy -- plus, I love the Taylors.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: Jax Fish House, specifically the one in Glendale. Chefs Sheila Lucero and Duane Walker have done a great job with that location.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? I'd have to say Brandon Foster, chef of Vesta Dipping Grill. I'd love to learn all about cured meats from him, plus he has such a big heart, and he's passionate, hardworking and talented. Brandon is an all-around good person, and I just love him.
Last meal before you die: Charcuterie with grilled bread and all the accoutrements, crispy duck confit, the pasta carbonara from Fruition, an arugula salad, a fresh bowl of berries, and a double espresso. I'm going to die anyway, right?
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