Chef Chris Nugent
Les Nomades |Chicago
By age 14, Chris Nugent had tried his hand at every station of the kitchen at Drovers Inn in upstate New York, under the tutelage of his mentor and adoptive father, Chef John Daly. Years of afternoons, evenings and holidays spent at the classically driven restaurant formed his foundation, which was rounded out by a degree from Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts. After graduating, Nugent worked at a turn-and-burn fish restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, and completed influential stages with Chef Michael Schlow at Radius in Boston, and Chef Rick Tramonto at Tru in Chicago.
Nugent moved to Chicago to work under Stephen Langloid at Prairie then went to Mid-America Club, a private club on the top of the Amoco building. Next Nugent took a position as the opening sous chef and, soon after, chef de cuisine at Michael Kornick’s MK. His next position was executive sous at Park Avenue Café, and then executive chef of a little French bistro in Wilmette, Illinois called Betise.
After 3½ years at Betise, Nugent was approached by the owner of Les Nomades, Mary Beth Liccioni. Liccioni had taken over the private dining club in 1993 and opened it to the public in 1996. Nugent joined as executive chef in 2005, and since then has managed to keep long-time regulars happy while also putting the restaurant on young, sophisticated, upscale diners’ maps. Nugent is, without a doubt, a breath of fresh air for Les Nomades, and a model for the successful adaptation of classic French cuisine into modern dining. As Liccioni describes it, “The cuisine has always been French – with Chris it’s more refined and more contemporary.”
Plus, he’s good with extra-curricular activities: Nugent is on the chef advisory board of the charity Common Threads, and regularly participates in cooking demonstrations at the Greenmarket and at schools throughout the city.
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Antoinette Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Chris Nugent: My mother passed away when I was 11, and I went to stay with a friend of the family. He was a chef, and I was only 11, so he’d take me to the restaurant to keep an eye on me. This was Drover's Inn in Vestel, NY. From age 11 on…that was it. Every New Year's, every birthday, I was there. It became my family.
AB: Where have you worked professionally?
CN: I started at Drover's Inn and then stayed in Newport, RI for a while at an Italian-style fish restaurant where we went straight to the boats for the fish. We had 800 covers a night – it was turn and burn. I moved out to Chicago and went to Prairie to work under Stephen Langloid. From there I went to Mid-America Club, which was actually a private club on the top of the Amoco building. From there I went to MK right after the opening and was sous chef and then chef de cuisine. From there I went to Park Avenue Café in Chicago as executive sous chef. I then became executive chef at Betise, which was a little French bistro in Wilmette. I spent 3.5 years there, then Mary Beth approached me about Les Nomades, and we went from there. That was 3 years ago.
AB: Did you go to culinary school? Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
CN: I went to Johnson and Wales, but had worked my way up to sous chef before I went.
I think culinary school is important because it's a great way to start and get a base understanding of the industry and basic knowledge. You can refine your techniques and whatnot after you leave.
AB: Did you do any stages?
CN: I staged at Radius in Boston, where I spent a week with Michael Schlow. I staged at Tru both when it first opened and 5 years after but I couldn't afford to work there.
AB: Tell us about your clientele.
CN: I have 4 couples that come twice a week and that alone demands 300 different menus per year. I have menus for certain couples based around foods they enjoy. That's the secret of Les Nomades – it still has a bit of that dining club atmosphere. We have a few people from Spain and England that come regularly.
AB: How many covers do you do each night?
Weeknights we do between 60-80, and on the weekend we do 100-110. With multi-course dining, that's easily 1000 plates out of the kitchen.
AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
CN: One of the most important questions is: why do you want to come cook here? I want to know why they want to do classical French. We're modern, but for the public I keep the descriptions simple, so people don't necessarily know what we do here unless they come.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
CN: My advice would be to have a lot of heart. You have to be honest and have a lot of integrity, and have great taste. And go slow. It's a slow process.
AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?
CN: I really enjoy beets. A simple red beet is very versatile. You can roast it and eat it with a marinade, but it can also be juiced and made into a nice reduction with red wine and vinegar.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
CN: I'm from upstate New York, and we're a fall-driven community. I love roasted vegetables, so I think of squash with cinnamon and nutmeg. Foie gras and capers are great to finish certain sauces and reductions, along with some red wine. Preserved lemons and olive oil makes a perfect sauce. I use it on a scallop dish here.
AB: Is there a culinary technique that you employ in an unusual or different way?
CN: We do a lot of meats here and like to add flavors at the end. The venison has juniper berries and rosemary and thyme, and then we add capers to make it pop.
AB: If you could go anywhere in the world for culinary travel, where would you go?
CN: It’s a toss up between France and Italy because I love both of them. France because I love French food – I'm very passionate about the food and the technique. Italy brings me back to being at home.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Chicago?
CN: My chef friend Dan McGee just opened up a place on the South Side (Dan McGee Restaurant). It's a great, simple, well-designed place that gets to the heart of good cuisine. I'm a huge fan of Hot Chocolate too.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the Chicago culinary scene?
CN: It’s definitely becoming market-driven. You need to source out the best ingredients, whether they come from a company or from a farmer. The most important thing is to find the best ingredients. If you develop great relationships with farmers, then you'll get the best product. Avant-garde cuisine is also a big phenomenon right now and in a few years I think it will be incorporated into more mainstream dining.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CN: I'm very technique-driven. I take the technique and try to think about how I can modernize it. I use technique while sourcing great ingredients and lightening it up a little bit. French isn't light – it has butter and fat – but you can lighten it up with certain oils and with finishing sauces that use acid instead of butter and have pop and zing instead of weight. If you've been a chef long enough, you know what produce is going to be available at certain times. You know the markets and the people, and what farmers are going to have. I keep track of when farmers have things, so I can plan my menus ahead of time.
AB: Who would you most like to cook for? To cook for you?
CN: I would like to cook for Nico Landonis at Chez Nico. He was self taught and trained through Europe. It would be a great honor. I'd also love to have Charlie Trotter come down and cook for me.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
CN: I work a lot with Common Threads and have cooked at the Green City Market for a long time. I also do a ton of cooking demos and we're closed on Monday so I get to go out and spend time in the community, and bring my wife. I've cooked at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and I do some things with the Alliance Francaise.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
CN: Working on my Brazilian Portuguese – my wife is from Brazil.
AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
CN: Success for me would be to have my own place. I'm committed to Chicago because I've been here a long time, and this is home. The next step would be to open my own place. Not too big, not too small and in the same realm. And not necessarily as classic, but with a more modern approach.
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