My Conversation with Derek Wagner

IMG_0278Derek Wagner doesn’t speak about local food as if it’s something that only a few elite chefs can accomplish. He talks about it as if it’s something he truly cares about, something he truly believes is the key to creating a healthy, sustainable future for Providence.

As I chatted with Derek for nearly an hour, it became evident that the Nick’s on Broadway chef knows his stuff. He opened Nick’s when he was 24, an age that would have been scoffed at by veteran chefs  just a few years ago, but is now becoming more and more common. Fast forward 13 years and Nick’s has grown from 18 seats to 55, now located at 500 Broadway still on the now hip and happening West Side of town. But, to find out how his culinary journey began, you’ll have to rewind farther back than Broadway.

“What inspired me to get into cooking is my family,” said Derek. “I come from a big family, so from a very young age dinner and everything that went into it was always such an experience.” He recalls his mom making everything from scratch, including fresh baked bread. The youngest of five kids, he often found himself hiding from his siblings in the kitchen or simply being intrigued by its sounds and smells. Platters of holiday cookies and and banana bread fresh from the oven made up the aroma and excitement that filled his family’s kitchen.

A pivotal memory is his grandfather’s ritual cooking Sunday dinner for the entire family, including his seven kids. Derek lived a few blocks away from his grandparents, so his family was usually the first there. He remembers being with his grandfather as he cooked a spread for twenty people every Sunday. The buzz and energy his grandfather had while roasting a chicken or turkey radiated through the kitchen. Even with all this enthusiasm around food he says, “I never thought, all the way up through high school, of doing it professionally. But, it was always something that had a very positive influence on my life.”

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In high school, he kept himself more than a little busy.  “I was trying to do as much as I could.” Not only was he working to get good grades and scholarships, he was also in a band, playing sports, and an Eagle Scout.

When it came time for Derek to decide what he wanted to do with his life, he was not planning on being a chef.  His plans were either scientific (“Science, engineering, something in that vein,”) or military (“I was going to go into the military. My dad was in the military, my brother went into the military, my grandfathers were in the military.”) In the end, Derek was ready to join the military and had actually been appointed to go to a specific school. But, he decided to become a chef. “It was something I really loved and enjoyed, it was something I found very meaningful, and I just decided to change gears at the last minute.”

Eventually, Derek came to Providence and opened Nick’s on Broadway. In February, Nick’s will be 13 years old. What was once a tiny neighborhood restaurant has grown into one of the most acclaimed spots in Rhode Island. They serve three meals a day, Wednesday through Friday.  From home fries to tasting menus, they cover a wide range of food for a wide range of budgets. It is important to Derek that the restaurant accommodates those who want a quick drink and some snacks while also catering to those who want to indulge in pre-reserved $125, nine course tasting menus.

For their a-la-carte dinner menu, they serve a simple but eclectic menu. A soup, a salad, cheese and/or charcuterie, and shellfish on the half shell make up the list of starters. For entrees, there’s typically a red meat, a poultry, two fish/seafood, and a vegetarian option. The Chef’s Choice (tasting menu) dinners revolve around altogether new dishes which allow Derek to get even more creative. These tasting menus started as off-the-cuff meals designed for people looking for something more challenging but as regulars came back for more, Derek got serious about the new concept. While he likes the impromptu approach, he also enjoys seeing the dishes reincarnate into something more complete.

Derek was quick to go into great detail on what exactly these dinners involve. The current tastings being served feature a bit of both, starting with a one or two bite snacky plate. Rotating soups will show up; turnip-apple-onion-parsley one week, celery root-pumpkin the next. Shellfish may follow in roasted and chilled form with different condiments. Textures will be played with; no meat, starch, veg here. A small bite of something crunch-salty-sweet-tangy might lead into a rich broth followed by a “salady” course that could either be a tartine, or charcuterie with crusty bread and jam. Next up is seafood with risotto or lentils, then fish with crispy skin, onto red meat (or even fish with a meat sauce) and so on, until the meal climaxes and maximum bliss is achieved. The four courses usually end up being seven and the nine courses twelve or thirteen with the unexpected taking center stage.

Some nights these tasting menus are being consumed by 30% of the diners, other nights 70%, and sometimes every table has ordered it. Derek would love to nix a-la-carte and switch to only tasting menus because of the flexibility and the gratitude people allow him by letting him cook them anything he wants. A perceived level of pretension comes with it thanks to some people making it feel vey stuffy and preachy, which is not what he wants. To find a line between the two extremes, the regular menu has shrunk although there are still many choices. All three menus (a-la-carte, four course tasting, and nine course tasting) continue to evolve all the time. Gone are the days of first course, main course, and dessert that lined their original menu. The major factors in creating the menus is not bringing the price point to a level where it’s inaccessible and always keeping it fresh.

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Derek doesn’t want his food to be pigeonholed into a single cuisine, either. He wasn’t jumping to tell me about New American food or the way he serves salmon. He was more interested in describing how he focuses on simple, seasonal food or how sourcing local scup is more important than giving diners fish that isn’t native and that they already know.

When I asked Derek how he would describe the type of cuisine he cooks, he told me that it’s hard to pin down. “We’re not doing a specific ethnicity. It’s not just Italian or French or Vietnamese. But if I had to narrow it down to a particular style or genre I would say freshness, simplicity, and seasonally focused. We do very vibrant food that has a lot of influence from other cultures, mostly rustic French and Italian but with other South American and Asian influences as well. We use New England ingredients and filters because of the way the seasons change. The temperature as well as what’s available is also a really huge filter that I work through.”

A favorite ingredient? “A lot of people ask me what my signature dish or my favorite thing to cook is and that’s really tough, to have one thing that would define you. Cooking is such an inspirational and evolving thing for me. I’m still so enamored by all the different things that are constantly changing.” However, he did tell me that he’s been interested in butchering of late. “For the last few years I’ve been really immersing myself. Because of the adherence of sourcing as much stuff from local farms and fisherman, I’ve been forced to take in unprocessed products that I’ve had to learn how to process.”

He feels very serious about working with these once-living animals. “I have a very no waste policy especially when it comes to a living animal. I think beyond not wanting to be wasteful there’s a reverence that goes into consuming something that was once living.  I feel that I have a duty to do something as wonderful as possible with every little bit.” This fascination has led to lots of new dishes. He’s expanded the charcuterie from not just meat but to seafood as well and he’s created dishes with the animal’s heads, collars, bones, and organs rather than just using a popular cut.

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Inspiration can come in all shapes and sizes. “It could come from anywhere. Because the seasons are so harsh here in New England, the food landscape changes drastically which is really fun and challenging. From an artistic standpoint, the scripts are constantly changing so you’re forced to change your menus which keeps it evolving.” If it’s the beginning of October and a farm sends him a bushel of pumpkins, he’ll immediately start looking for a way to utilize them. He looks back at what they may have done last year, what worked and what didn’t, what they started working on, and what they plan to pick up on.

Ideas don’t always come from success, though, in fact they often come from failures. Maybe he’s not happy with the texture. Perhaps the flavor isn’t working. A dish may function once, but making it many times over many days in a restaurant kitchen might not work with 35 people ordering it all at the same time. “You can’t just write menus in a vacuum, you have to right them in context with other dishes on the menu, in context with an entire kitchen and the flow of service, in the flow of an entire week.”

Local restaurants never fail to keep Derek passionate, either. I asked him to name a few. New Rivers (“The past owner was an early inspiration and I’ve become great friends with Bo,”) and Chez Pascal (“I think they do a great job of making it a very warm experience and I love what Matt is doing with the sausages,”) are two that he loves. “I love James at north. He worked at Nick’s for three years and I was really excited when he opened his restaurant. What he and his team are doing is very different from what’s being offered anywhere else.”

At the end of our conversation I asked Derek if he could sum up Nick’s in one sentence, not a particularly easy task. “Wow, you hit me with the ringer at the end!” he said, jokingly. He paused for a moment. “What we try to do here…” He stopped for a second more before doing just what I hoped: outlining what he strives for in the restaurant. “We try to create beautiful, delicious, very authentic food, beverage, and service that’s balanced, that’s interesting, that’s thoughtful, but above all else authentic and wholesome. At the end of the day, I want to create the best product that I can create. We’re not trying to be better than anyone else, we just want to do the best we can do. My ultimate goal is to continue to get better every day.” When people leave here and I ask them what they like the most and they can’t answer me…Then I know we’ve hit home.”

Note: Since interviewing Derek, I recently had the chance to have my first dinner at Nick’s and it was incredible. From the attention-to-detail on the part of the waitstaff to the excellent food being put out by Derek and his team, the neighborhood vibe to the relaxed pace, a meal at Nick’s is an insight into local, fresh, and tasty. With the generous portions and amuse-bouches, you’ll definitely go away full and satisfied. You’ll be left with a memory of an exquisite meal and a chef with raw talent.

One thought on “My Conversation with Derek Wagner”

  1. Brilliant interview and review. We’re looking forward to sampling Nick’s culinary talents with you and your brother when we visit Providence.

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