Interview with Chef Nick Ritchie of Bottega - Napa Sonoma

June, 2009

Baylee Simon: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
NR: I got a job with Michael Chiarello when I was really young; I basically started cooking to get a job and see how fun it was. The kitchen brought together quite an eclectic group of people, and basically I figured I could travel and work anywhere in the world as a chef. I thought if I continued to work in the kitchen as my career, I could pretty much go anywhere I wanted and always work with a really interesting and fun group of people.

BS: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
NR: I would recommend culinary school. I spent six years in the industry working in Tra Vigne before I even went to culinary school. A lot of people say, “Don’t go, you’re just going to waste $50,000,” but I thought it was very beneficial, and I would definitely recommend culinary school in addition to work experience. In my case, after working at Tra Vigne for so long, I had a bit of a head start on culinary school; I knew what to look for and the right questions to ask. If you spend some time working in the industry and then go to school, I think the combination of the both is the best possible education you can get. As far as hiring goes, it’s a case-by-case basis. I definitely don’t choose one applicant over another because of a diploma.

BS: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
NR: We’re very involved, actually. The Culinary Institute of America, of which I’m an alum—I graduated from the Hyde Park, NY, campus—has a campus here in St. Helena, which is actually my hometown. We’ve been very active in getting an externship at Bottega rolling. I constantly have interns coming in and out of the kitchen; right now in the kitchen we have a couple of girls who are currently in school and work for free one day a week. I’m more than happy to have anyone from CIA in my kitchen.

BS: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NR: That’s kind of hard to wrap up—one big philosophy. We definitely try to keep things fairly simple and true to the original recipe concepts. We keep our flavors fairly straight forward. I don’t have one particular philosophy because it all depends on where you are and who you’re cooking for. You have to adapt your philosophy to the environment. A chef has to know what the occasion is and what the surroundings are; I don’t think you can be successful in this business with one philosophy. It takes a few different ways of looking at things.

BS: You’ve been cooking with Michael Chiarello for a long time – how many years? What is it that’s got you hooked?
NR: I started working with him when I was 13, and now I’m 28. I’ve worked with him on and off for 15 years. I’ve been back working only for him for the last three-and-a-half years. Michael is a genius when it comes to his restaurant business. I’ve worked with a lot of great cooks in my career, and Michael is one of them. He’s a great cook, but even more than that, he is a very smart businessman and an amazing restaurateur. I don’t think there’s anyone better who I could learn this business from. To get to come back and work this closely to him as his chef de cuisine is pretty amazing.

BS: Tell me more about NapaStyle – what is your role in this?
NR: I’m technically the culinary director for NapaStyle; I basically help oversee some of the specialty food production. I was also doing a lot of the food styling for the catalog photography. Mainly at NapaStyle my responsibility is to oversee the specialty food products; we do a lot of homemade items in the Yountville branch, which is the flagship store. It has a production kitchen that we use to make fruit preserves, flavored oils, salts, spice rubs and dried pickled vegetables. Right now that is my biggest part of NapaStyle.

BS: What goes into creating a dish?
NR: A lot of things go into creating a dish. As far as what I do, Michael and I will brainstorm and put something together. Or if I’m looking for a special dish or menu item, I’ll first take a look at what we need and where we need it—do we need a fish dish, a poultry dish? I’ll find out what we need to fill that gap and keep our menu consistent and well-rounded, which is very important. We start there and then go to the best raw product we can get, whether it be all-natural ram shanks from right over the hill in Sonoma, or dry-farmed organic apricots from over in the valley. First we find what we need and then go to the best raw product, and take it from there.

BS: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
NR: The restaurant is brand new; we’re the new guy in an established town of Michelin star and highly regarded restaurants. And we’re the only Italian food in town; everyone else is pretty much French or French-American. Across the street from us you have three Michelin stars at The French Laundry, and then you have one Michelin star at Bouchon, one Michelin star at Bistro Jeanty and a Michelin star at Redd. So we’re in a town with a lot of competition that’s been here for a lot longer than we have.

BS: What trends do you see emerging?
NR: That’s a tough question for me. We opened up here on December 5, and I spend a good 100 hours of my week at Bottega, so I honestly don’t get a lot of time to get out and about. The last time I ate out in Napa was probably in November, before we opened. Just like everywhere, the farm-to-table thing is huge, especially here in Yountville. There are a handful of farmers that just show up at the backdoor of the restaurant – we call them “backdoor farmers.” That’s a really big thing. It’s kind of neat and something that you don’t see everywhere. Here there is a very close-knit, small restaurant community. Everyone knows everyone and it’s not that large of an area.

BS: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
NR: Honestly, I would say I’m kind of at the peak of my proudest accomplishment here, opening Bottega as the chef de cuisine for Michael Chiarello at 27 years old. I never saw myself doing this so early, or at least while so young. To get to this opportunity at the age of 27 with Michael, get some rave reviews off the bat, and just continue to be the talk of the town is amazing. I’m busier every single day, it’s pretty cool.

BS: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
NR: I don’t know. I would like to say maybe still here at Bottega, but that’s kind of hard to say. I’d like to open up my own place, but so long as it’s with someone else’s money. It’s something that I haven’t really thought of too seriously because it is a big investment and a big gamble. I love making pasta, and I would love to open a small plates pasta restaurant—something with a cool concept that you haven’t seen before.

BS: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
NR: I’d probably be working with animals. I love my two dogs, and aside from the restaurant, I’m most happy spending time with my dogs, usually. When I was in high school, I thought I might want to be a biologist or something like that. I just fell in love with the kitchen, so it’s hard to say where I would have gone.