Interview with Chef Nick Oltarsh of Lobby at Twelve - Atlanta

October, 2007

Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Nick Oltarsh: I always loved cooking since I was a little boy. My mom was an incredible cook, as was my grandmother. Even at age six I was scribbling my name in my mom’s cookbook.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
NO: In New York: Lespinasse, Gramercy Tavern, and 11 Madison Park.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
NO: I went to CIA, but to me culinary school is neither here nor there. It's great but not necessary. I don't exclusively hire people who went to culinary school.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
NO: Gray Kunz was a mentor – he is so exacting and passionate. He cares so much about what he does and is super talented. He is incredible with vegetables and at extracting flavor out of them. He taught me how to cook. Tom Colicchio is another mentor – he taught me how to run a kitchen.

AB: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
NO: I staged at Il Cortile in little Italy in New York, which was great. There is a lot to learn out there. I worked at EAT and learned how to make a corn dog, tuna salad, and other things you never learn in fine dining but need to know.

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?
NO: I always ask if they can work Sundays, and what kind of food they love. I am looking for interest and passion for food.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
NO: Start at a great restaurant. Put yourself in an uncomfortable position and really extend yourself.

AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly underappreciated or underutilized?
NO: Root vegetables like rutabagas, turnips, and celery root.

AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
NO: Vinegar and butter because it's a nice balance between acidity and fat. Sweet and sour are good for their total yin and yang contrast.

AB: What's your most indispensable kitchen tool?
NO: My pen and notepad – everything I see going on in my kitchen, things I try, things I like or don't like, goes in to my notepad.

AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created of borrowed and use in an unusual way?
NO: I love watching my prep cooks. Their ethnic heritage lends itself to unique techniques and I try to pick up some of them, like braising lamb, for example. I’m really in to pincage, which uses lots of tomato paste, capers, chipotle, vinegar and allspice to make a braise.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
NO: Paula Wolfert cookbooks for their authenticity. I like Moroccan cookbooks in general for their braising techniques.

AB: Where to you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
NO: Asia – on my fortieth birthday, I headed there to eat street food.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants-off the beaten path-in your city?
NO: I always go down Bedford Highway for Korean food. Hae Woon Dae has great BBQ and seafood pancakes, and I go to Pho #7 for Pho.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NO: It depends on the context. In my restaurants, I like simple food. I like burgers. I tend to appreciate food in which the sum is greater than the parts. I want my guests to walk away talking about how yummy the food was.

AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
NO: A big foam trend, which I am not fond of because I think it’s innovative to a fault. Paninis are being totally abused right now. Not many people know how to make them properly; they use the wrong bread and it’s too thick.

AB: Which person in history would you most like to have dinner with?
NO: The artist Gustav Klimt. I would cook something braised, like brisket with roasted potatoes.

AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
NO: I vet because I love animals.

TR: Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten years?
NO: I’d like to be the chef of many Lobby restaurants. We are opening up our second one in a few months.