James Richardson started his career in the kitchen washing dishes and shucking oysters in his home town in the Gulf-coast region of Florida. When he moved to Tampa for college, a strange accident involving the resident chef of a kitchen Richardson was working in led to him filling in and writing the specials for the day. He was always interested in the culinary arts, but this fateful opportunity changed his focus, and he began to take cooking seriously.
In 1997, his first mentor, chef Jean Pierola, took him from line cook up to sous chef at Boca, advancing his skills and focus. In 1998, Richardson went out on his own and opened a restaurant named Atomic Café. At Atomic Café he learned the ups and downs, ins and outs of the kitchen and earned his hard knocks. The restaurant ran its course, and he eventually ended up back with Pierola, where he contributed to modernizing the classic steak house, Berns. Feeling as though he had done all he could in Florida, Richardson headed out to Los Angeles in 2001 for a fresh start.
Working his way up from line cook to co-executive chef, Richardson was finding his way again. After spending the summer of 2002 back in Florida due to family obligations, Richardson returned to Los Angeles and began working with friends and current business partners at Bergamot Café. The idea for opening Nook Bistro was quickly hatched where Richardson is now part owner and executive chef.
Interview with Chef James Richardson of Nook - Los Angeles, CAAntoinette Bruno:
Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
I was cooking to put myself through school. The chef I was working for was injured, and I was asked to fill-in for him. I was 21 years old and that accident changed my life. It was just fate. Although I was always interested in the culinary arts, this opportunity changed my focus, and I really began to take cooking seriously.
AB: Did you attend culinary school? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today?
JR: I never went to school. It can be a good thing, a good jump for kids. I do feel that school is good for learning the basics, but I usually dissuade kids from going to school before working in the kitchen. It is important for people to understand the reality and pressure of actually working in a kitchen.
AB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
JR: Jeanie Pierola. She is an incredible chef. I worked in a few restaurants with her. She is corporate chef at Sideburn’s and Bern’s Steakhouse. From her I learned passion: being excited about what you are doing. I also learned about wine from her and a deep appreciation for pairing food with wine. She was generous with her knowledge.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JR: There is a theory in philosophy that there are no original ideas, all ideas are already out there. The same can be said about food. You have to make the basic ingredients, like ideas, your own. I have learned over time to focus on a few key elements, simple bold flavors, keeping a dish true to its integral ingredients.
AB: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
JR: Braised meats of any kind – cooked to perfection, and unusual heirloom legumes.
AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
JR: My microplane – it’s the best thing since the rubber spatula. It’s fast and easy, and I can use it for so many things.
AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
JR: I like to use slow cooking methods, but I haven’t yet used sous vide. I also use spice rubs a lot. I make a curry spice and my own curing blends, like the coriander cure.
AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
JR: What was your favorite dish at your previous restaurant and please describe to me how it’s made. I’m looking for passion. You can teach technique, but you can’t teach someone to care.
AB: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JR: You should be learning something every day from anyone in your kitchen—including your dishwashers. I’ve learned some great things from those you least expect.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JR: I don’t really have any favorites, but I do love Julia Child and Jacques Pepin books. They’re incredible, old school, but ground-breaking nonetheless. They really were turning points for the industry in their time. Also, Sheila Lukins’ first cookbook was really the first modern gourmet cookbook. All the recipes work and they are well explained.
AB: What cities do you like for culinary travel?
JR: San Francisco, New York, and Paris. There are so many great chefs in one city. I love New Orleans, one whiff of the humid air and I know I am home.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path – in your city?
JR: There are no unbeaten paths in Los Angeles, but I do enjoy the fried lentils at Cobras and Matadors. And for Mexican: Allegria in Silverlake for their carnitas.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JR: I see more mid-priced, chef-driven, neighborhood restaurants.
AB: Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
JR: Hopefully I’ll have two more restaurants. I’d like small neighborhood restaurants but with different concepts.