INTERVIEW WITH WAYNE NISH, Executive Chef and co-owner of March in New York City and author of Simple Menus for the Bento Box, William Morrow & Company, 1998 by Laura Lehrman

Happy Cooking!!

LL: You started your cooking career about 16 years ago, what did you do during the preceding years?

WN: I didn't become a professional chef until I was 32 years old after taking many side roads and detours. These included starting as a journalism major in college; taking off two years and working as a cook for college fraternity houses; going back to school and studying architecture and then working with an architectural firm which now 22 years later I'm using for my restaurant's expansion. In the 1970's, during a seven year detour, I owned and operated four retail printing stores. Yet, I was always interested in cooking for enjoyment and was an avid avocational cook. I set up my schedule so that I worked a four day week and could leave work at 3:00 pm to go food shopping at gourmet markets like Balducci's, then go to the meat market district, then on to Chinatown.

LL: What was the progression to opening your restaurant, March?

WN: The turning point in my professional life came in 1980 when I took a trip to Switzerland and ate dinner at Freddy Girardet's. I was 28 years old, had never seen lobster out of the shell or eaten foie gras. Gray Kunz was working there at the time. I had a nine course meal and still vividly remember each course. In 1983, I attended the fairly new, New York Restaurant School and upon graduation joined the staff of the now closed, but certainly not forgotten Quilted Giraffe. Barry Wine, the owner of The Quilted was the mentor who taught me about high-end dining; and I was privileged to work with him and his talented staff for the next three and a half years.

From there, after a brief hiatus working as a private family chef, I went on to become the chef of a sleepy little New York City bistro, La Colombe d'Or. At the time, it was not a ‘white tablecloth' restaurant. I stayed there two years. We were fortunate enough to receive a lot of press and the restaurant was awarded three stars by The New York Times after I had been there for only four months — the first time a bistro of this sort had received such a high rating. When the opportunity to open my own place occurred, I joined forces with Joe Scalice who was the General Manager at La Colombe d'Or and an expert on the management side of the business.

LL: What is the origin of the name March?

WN: The media had regularly referred to me as a French chef. I am not French and I don't think of myself as a French chef. I wanted to give the restaurant a name that had no ethnic reference at all, a name that was kind of ambiguous. The word "march" has different meanings, it's a noun and a verb. It originated in the Middle Ages from the Old English word meaning frontier or boundary.

LL: How did your background effect the development of your "New American Cuisine"?

WN: I grew up in a working class Irish neighborhood in Queens, New York during the ‘50's and ‘60's. My mother was from Malta and my father was Japanese-Norwegian. Multi-ethnic food experiences have always been normal to me. When I was growing up, when we went out to eat, it was for Japanese food at one of two places near Columbia University or we went to Astoria for Greek food, or to Flushing for Chinese restaurants. The 1990 Census reported that there were 193 separate ethnic groups in Queens alone, making it a cross-section of the world.

I have always drawn my inspiration from the cultural mosaic of New York City — traveling around town, frequenting the mom and pop ethnic markets and restaurants. It is important to me to use the sources and experiences from my background in the constant refinement and growth of my cooking philosophy.

I do, however, rankle when I'm called a fusion chef. I'm not happy when I'm being pigeon- holed. Even though fusion is sometimes an apt term, it's gotten a bad name. I hope that I'm having an effect in changing that. I think of what I do as simply being American. There's no reason that fusion cuisine should be synonymous with bad food and odd combinations.

LL:What are some of your favorite cookbooks or food references?

WN:1) Larousse Gastronomic— It was given to me as a gift in 1977 and I spent the next three days reading it cover to cover and being totally fascinated.
2) Simple French Food — This one by Richard Olney was very influential to my thinking about the philosophy of food as it relates to lifestyle.
3)The Simple Art of Japanese Cooking— By Tsuji was a benchmark for me.
4) Science of Eating Well— I greatly respect Pellegrini Artusi's philosophical statement.

LL:Name the most essential equipment for you in the kitchen.

WN: At March, we cook as domestic cooks do, in the sense that our food is made to order as we cook for one person at a time. Therefore, I favor excellent quality smallwares such as half sheet pans and small appliances which meet commercial standards. The other important tools are:

  • Knives
  • Whisks and a pair of tongs
  • A Japanese mandoline

LL:What are five key ingredients for a New American Cuisine pantry?

WN: I'd love to have truffles, caviar and foie gras, but always have the following on hand, ingredients which are almost universally useful and versatile:
1) White vermouth
2) Fresh chives
3) Coriander seeds
4) Roast tomatoes
5) Confit of garlic

LL:What's in your culinary future?

WN:1) Expansion of March — We'll be breaking ground soon to do a $1 million plus expansion which will add 25 seats turning the restaurant into a 75 seater. It's all very exciting and we think it will attract a lot of attention in the food world.
2) Open an Old New York-style casual bar — We are only in the beginning stages of exploring this concept. The bar would have an extensive whiskey, beer and wine list and serve hamburgers.
3) Write THE WAYNE NISH/MARCH COOKBOOK — Another planned project is a book which would incorporate more of my interests. It will have essays including one which defines American food as I see it as well as my photos and recipes.