2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Sustainability Chef Derek Wagner of Nicks on Broadway

2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Sustainability Chef Derek Wagner of Nicks on Broadway
April 2014

Derek Wagner takes the work of a chef to another level. He’s not just a courier of flavor, delivering bold, seasonal messages to palates, but he also makes it his business to reach diners on a deeper level. And it’s been that way since Wagner took over Nicks on Broadway in 2002, when he was just 24 years old. From its modest 18-seat beginning to its current tripled capacity, Nicks has evolved into a Providence institution, and Wagner uses that platform to foster good food, community, and consciousness in tandem.

An early and eager proponent of forging close relationships with farmers and producers, Wagner also planted his own herb and vegetable gardens and fruit trees. A two-time James Beard nominee, with Nicks named “One of the World’s Best Restaurants” by Fodor’s three years in a row, Wagner doesn’t rest on his laurels. In 2010, he was a featured chef at the James Beard House in conjuction with his contribution to the Harvest to Heat cookbook (Taunton Press). Wagner was also a featured chef in the Philip Johnson Glass House dinner and benefit, as well as in the film associated with the event. In February 2014, he took his message all the way to Congress, where he advocated for small and responsible fisheries. Wagner sits on the board of Chefs Collaborative and is the only chef on the board of the Rhode Island Seafood and Marketing Collaborative. In 2014, he won the StarChefs.com Coastal New England Sustainability Award.

I Support: Rhode Island Community Food Bank


Why: The RI Food Bank is one of my favorite charities because they understand the true power and importance of food. And I admire the ability they have to provide sustenance directly to the hungry and less fortunate. They use food to accomplish an imperative good deed.

About: Last year, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank feeds distributed nearly 10 million pounds of food through a network of 178 member agencies.

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

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.