When do you feel your most creative?
Whenever I am most creative, it is normally when I am stressed out. To relieve stress, I usually cook or try to make something with my hands (like ceramics).
You first started out at Business School. What prompted the change in your path?
Cooking has always been a passion of mine. I love feeding everyone around me. When I was finishing up my degree, the economy was down (2008) and I didn’t really see a big future in marketing at the time. One day in New Orleans, I walked by a dessert shop named Sucre and it hit me like an ah ha moment where I just knew I should be a chef.
You grew up in New Orleans - how much of who you are as a person today, has been informed by your hometown?
New Orleans is a huge part of my identity. New Orleanians have a great sense of humor, are compassionate people and are the most resilient people I know. They also know how to have a good time. I really like to think that I have those qualities ingrained in me. I absolutely love my home and every in NYC knows that I am the girl from Nola.
We seem to be increasingly divided during these turbulent political times, is the connective element of cooking something you find important? How does this play out in your life?
It is easy to stay in your own bubble when you live in a city like New York. Coming from the south, I have friends and family with many different point of views. Sharing meals with them and talking about our opinions help me better understand where other people are coming from. It worries me that today’s political climate is so polarizing. If we want to really be open minded, we have to listen and truly consider everyone’s concerns. I find food is a great way of connecting people and starting the conversation. If the conversations get to heated, we can change the subject and talk about the food instead. It always works.
Have you always been confident in the kitchen? Or was it something that you had to cultivate through practice?
Confidence is something I really have to work on. I can be confident in the kitchen at times. Usually when I am in my comfort zone. But I am really bad at constantly second guessing myself, double checking everything or making adjustments to perfect a dish. Thought it may seem like a disadvantage to lack confidence at times, I like to use it to my advantage. I think that it makes me strive to be better or to perfect everything that I do.
When or how do you feel most grounded?
Cooking is very competitive, especially in NYC, and it can grind you down. Always battling your insecurities and working long hours really takes a toll on me. Whenever I feel lost or need just a lift up, I go home to New Orleans and press the refresh button. Hanging out with my friends and family help me the most at being grounded. They help me remember why I do the things that I do and clear my head of the clutter that I sometimes sink in.
New York is intense, famously intense, and the food industry is notoriously competitive. Knowing you as I have the privilege to do so, I get to see, first hand, how utterly generous and selfless of a person you are. How do you make time to prioritize yourself. Do you have any routines, rituals or mantras that you regularly utilize?
Thank you for the compliment. My favorite time is time to myself. I know it is cheesy to say that my work isn’t my work because I enjoy it but I do enjoy cooking in the kitchen alone in the early mornings. As much as I love my work, I love to play just as much. So traveling to new cities or going home to New Orleans is a way I prioritize myself. But I really want to start meditating because that is probably a lot cheaper.
Though it’s changing now, the food world is still very male dominated. Having worked with overwhelmingly male teams and then transitioning to a female led community with Cook Space, what differences in culture and management style did you observe? How has that informed how you work and how you hope to develop your career?
More females are getting recognition for carving their place in a traditionally male dominated industry. Women are getting recognized for our incredible talent as well as our positive impact to the culture. Personally, I find that showing your staff that you care about them and valuing everyone’s quality of life outside of work is a key to retaining a positive and nurturing work culture. I love the saying “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”.
BTW, I know that their are a lot of males in the kitchen but if you were to ask most of them who inspired them to cook, they will most likely name a woman.
With your personal style, you have a unique capacity to float between dramatic, more classically “feminine” elegance and badass tomboy. What or who influences your sartorial style?
Coming from New Orleans, I never miss the opportunity to dress up in costume. I treat my style kind of the same but it changes with my mood. When I need to get things done and know that I will get dirty, I like dressing up as a tomboy. Since I dress boyish most of the time, I like to shock people with my very femme look. And if I want to really stand out, I go for something dramatic that makes people take a second look (whether for the good or bad). Fashion was another career path I would love to follow in another life.
What’s an ingredient or recipe you’re currently playing with? Probably being picky here but can we have ingredient come first then recipe
Right now, I am playing with buckwheat flour. I love the taste of buckwheat and it is not actually a wheat but instead a cousin of rhubarb (so it is gluten free). I have been testing recipes to add the nutty quality of buckwheat to my favorite dishes as well as making them a little healthier.
BUCKWHEAT PANCAKE RECIPE
1 cup buckwheat flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 ¼ c buttermilk
1 large egg
1 Tbsp melted butter
½ tsp vanilla extract
whisk all dry ingredients together in a bowl
mix all wet ingredients together
combine wet and dry ingredients with a spoon
let the batter sit for 10 minutes before cooking
What’s an ingredient or recipe you’re dying to play with?
I have been seeing beautiful sesame leaves at the farmers markets and I am dying to use them but haven’t had a day to experiment lately.
Has being on Top Chef given you a deeper insight into how you approach challenges, either professionally or personally?
My Top Chef experience has definitely given me a lot more confidence in myself and what I am capable of doing. I think that I would still approach challenges the same would I would normally approach everything. Be realistic, be focused and execute.
What were the best (and worst!) parts of being in such an isolated, competitive environment for so long?
Best part was making new friends. I love the cast and I have become real life friends with them. The worst part was being away from friends and family. But everything was worth it.
How do you set goals for yourself, both short-term and longer term? Do you have specific dreams you hope to achieve in the next several years?
When setting goals for myself, I usually wake up deciding on something. I would have weighed the pros and cons but I do trust my gut. And whenever I make a big decision in my life/career, I ask myself “Is this move taking me a step closer to where I want to be in life?” and if so, I usually go with that move.
The next several years, my broad goals are to create a business for myself whether is it a restaurant, school or ceramic business (or all three), settling down in a house (that I will hopefully own) and building a family (because it is about that time).
What are you currently listening to?
I am currently listening to old 80s Madonna.
What is your favorite “recipe” for bringing loved ones to the table? (can be a food recipe or “life” recipe)
Guilt. Guilt is such a powerful tool. =) but seriously, I lure people over with themed dinners and it isn’t hard to convince people to come over.
We are so proud of you, Nini, and cannot wait to see you kill it on Top Chef, debuting on December 6th! #teamnini