Aniedra Nichols spent nearly a decade turning out what she recalls as “a conveyor belt of steaks and sides” at Elway’s Cherry Creek, so it was with some trepidation that she considered an offer to join the much smaller Fish N Beer, a new spot from Kevin Morrison, a big fan of her cooking. Nichols had spent her career anticipating and preparing for such a move, however; she’d purposefully soaked up everything she could about the industry from a variety of heavyweights, even working the front of the house at Bistro Vendôme and the now-closed Mel’s so she could fully understand how a restaurant operated and eventually apply all of that experience to her own place. She always knew that she was meant to be in the kitchen — “I’ve been watching cooking shows since I was five,” she says — and it turned out that the kitchen of Fish N Beer, which opened late last year in RiNo, was a perfect fit.
We recently sat down with Nichols to talk about blowfish tails, how the Denver restaurant scene is coming into its own, and why you shouldn’t overlook the steak on the Fish N Beer menu.
Westword: You’ve said before that you really know you belong in this business. How did you discover that?
Aniedra Nichols: I worked at a bakery, Andre’s, that’s no longer in business; it went out of business a year ago, after 49 years. I was going to school to be a physical therapist, and specifically to do sports medicine for basketball, but then I discovered how much chemistry was involved. Metro [State University of Denver] was getting their hospitality program going, but not as fast as I needed, so I was in a funk. My mom asked me one day, “What would you be doing if you were working for free?” I said cooking. So I started looking at cooking schools. I went to the Culinary Institute, but I wasn’t impressed. I went to Johnson & Wales and got a bunch of scholarships, and it just kind of went from there.
Culinary school is also where you began your professional relationship with Tyler Wiard — then overseeing long-gone Cherry Creek spot the Fourth Story, and your eventual boss at Elway’s, where you spent nearly a decade. Could you talk a bit about that mentoring relationship?
During culinary school, one of our servers was working at Fourth Story. They came to me and said, “I work with a talented chef, and I would love for you to meet him.” That’s how I did my externship with Tyler Wiard. When I met him, I was very green. I don’t like my food to touch, and I eat things in order, and I haven’t broken that habit. Eating [Tyler’s] dishes when I was invited to have dinner there was mind-blowing to me — he didn’t go to culinary school. I graduated at 26, and I thought, wow, it’s amazing that someone could come up with dishes like that and flavors like that and not have gone to school. I found it very inspiring.
How did your culinary style evolve over the years at Elway’s?
I knew Elway’s wasn’t going to be like Fourth Story [a smaller, more intimate restaurant]. People go to a steakhouse and know what they want. But I did specials, and also a lot of events, with Tyler. That introduced me to many different styles of food. I was given this compliment from our old sommelier: “Your food is simply delicious.” I don’t like plates with too many touches, and I like the main ingredient to be the highlight. I gained my confidence when I was invited to be part of Denver FIVE and cooked at the James Beard House. When my dish was one of the James Beard top fifteen dishes of the year, I knew I was good enough to be on my own.
With Fish N Beer, you’ve gone away from the steakhouse, and away from a high-volume restaurant. Has that changed your approach and style?
One of the biggest weeks I’ve ever done was something like $150,000 or $250,000, which was just insane. Elway’s was like a conveyer belt of steak and sides. It was leverage I needed to get where I am, but I prefer smaller, intimate groups. At Elway’s, no one really knows who you are. At Fish N Beer, I’ve already had a number of repeat guests. I have more freedom. I’m taking a lot of dishes and ideas that I thought were underappreciated as specials and putting them on the menu here. It’s unbelievably awesome dealing with a smaller atmosphere and a totally different clientele.
Fish N Beer really staked out a niche in Colorado that’s often overlooked. Talk to me a bit about the vision, and how you’re carrying that out with owner Kevin Morrison.
Kevin’s vision for this was that it’s not your grandfather’s fish house. Less is more, and it always has been. The menu needs to be approachable, and people need to feel comfortable. If people don’t understand what they’re reading on a menu, they’re not going to come back. We’re value-driven, and we wanted to have a grazing menu. You can come have oysters and a beer and leave, or throw down with a full meal and a bottle of wine. We have a whole fish that’s $28 with a sauce (more of a butter, really) and a side, which people can share or eat themselves. And we feature underutilized fish. I’ve been working with Seattle Fish for twelve or thirteen years. They were super-excited and open-minded about working with us. We took an R&D trip with them to the Cape and Boston to see their side of things — where they’re sourcing, the turnover time, when it gets to them and when it gets to us. Every product is as fresh as can be, and we try to relay our relationship [with Seattle Fish] to those concerned about eating fish in a landlocked state.
“Underutilized fish” — tell me more about what that means.
We don’t have the usual suspects of tuna, salmon, sea bass. Well, we have salmon collar on our charcuterie board. But we also have scallops smoked with a Bloody Mary vinaigrette, and quinoa-crab crabcakes. Our crabcakes are not all the bread and filler that people [associate] crabcakes with.
And blowfish tails, which our critic loved.
Yeah, Seattle Fish brought that in. Our former rep suggested it for us, saying, “You’ll be the only ones using it.” We started with a blowfish basket, and we fried the tails in flour and served them with blackened aioli. Then we played with buffalo style for our happy-hour menu. That was so good we changed the basket. Since [Gretchen Kurtz’s review], the response has been out of control: We cannot keep them in stock. We’re going through 120 pounds per week.
Any dishes people are overlooking that you wish they’d try?
I’d say the Not Fish section: We have a Novo [coffee]-rubbed New York strip with cippolini onions, and the mushroom steak with melted Swiss, toasted ciabatta and scallion-whipped potatoes. Those are hidden gems. You don’t have to pick seafood; we do have options for you if you don’t eat fish, and you don’t just have to make a meal out of sides. That’s the whole point of what we’re doing: We want everyone to be involved, not just seafood people. This is something everyone can enjoy. We did think this out; we did think about everyone, not just ourselves, and not just the seafood people of the world. I’m the same way, actually — I’m not a seafood person.
Wait, what? You’re not a seafood person, but you’re heading the kitchen at a seafood restaurant?
Yes, and that was the first thing I told Kevin! But no one really knows it. I made a vow when I went to culinary school that I would taste everything: It’s not fair to yourself to be close-minded. I know what flavors go well together, and I get other people’s opinions. You have to have knowledge of whatever you’re working with. You learn to differentiate what goes well and what doesn’t.
So where does Fish N Beer go from here?
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Our plan is to open more. The idea is when that happens, I would be the chef partner and oversee the menu, hire the chef, find the talent that understands what we’re doing and where we’re going. We’re opening two more Tacos Tequila Whiskeys this year. The idea is for them to have their own identity but still be along the same lines of what all the others are doing.
And where do you personally go from here?
I would love to teach classes. Let’s say you want to hire for a bridal shower, or a ten-top, a guys’ night out with a whiskey dinner, or a bachelor party. I’d come and do a hands-on experience. Something like that is what I really want to get into: the teaching side. Not just me cooking, not just me doing all the work.
Fish N Beer is located at 3510 Larimer Street and is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 303-248-3497 or go to fishnbeerdenver.com.