Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Sustainability Chef Derek Wagner of Nicks on Broadway – Providence, RI

by Sean Kenniff
April 2014

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
Derek Wagner: I’ve been cooking since I was a kid. I went to Johnson and Wales straight out of high school. I still go back to talk to students there about the realities of sustainability and the locavore movement. My overall goal is to guide local farmers to make product more consistent and support their business. I’m also on the board of the Chefs Collaborative. 

SK: Who's your mentor?
DW: The man I still call chef is Casey Riley, a personal mentor. I worked for him for four years at the Westin Hotel.

SK: What’s your philosophy at Nicks?
DW: Authenticity is very important to me. I'm here every day. I want my team to feel comfortable and proud about what they do, down to treating the dishwasher with respect. Happy cooks make happy food. 

I started a whole-animal butchery program and space here about four years ago, using local animals. I learned how to butcher because of the weird laws [that impede small scale operations that raise animals] and the economics of it. We have a fabrication space downstairs. I don't like to waste anything that has had life attached to it.

SK: Where does your other product come from?
DW: I work with 50 to 60 local farmers and producers, we get a lot from Schartner Farms. 

SK: Where do you see yourself in five years?
DW: Probably right here. I want to engage more, still cook, but also be more connected to what's going on a national and global level. That's why I like Chefs Collaborative. I want to share my story and have an impact. I don't want to have 15 restaurants, just one or two. I just bought the building next store for something fun. 

I'm going to Washington, D.C. in February for a few days, working with a Sam Hayward, Michael Leviton and a few other chefs and fisherman. We'll be sharing our stories with congress on why supporting local and smaller fishermen, aquaculture, and responsible fisheries management is so vitally important on many levels. Hopefully we can have some meaningful, positive impact. I know I’ll have my hands full on catch-up when I get back to the restaurant.