On the Line / JT Nicholson
Photo by kc kratt
Name: John Tyler Nicholson
Current Title: Executive Chef
Restaurant: Sear; 200 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo; searbuffalo.com
Length of time at current job: 1 year
How many years behind the stove: 18
Over the past five to seven years, scratch cooking has had a minor resurgence in Buffalo. And finally, after decades of boil-in-bag sauces, frozen creamed spinach, and dehydrated soup bases, SEAR is here to put fine dining (and its requisite companion, scratch cooking) back in the steakhouse. Under the direction of Chef JT Nicholson, SEAR offers guests a large menu of approachably updated steakhouse classics. As an avid hunter and the godson of a cattle rancher, Nicholson grew up with the kind of respect for ingredients you’d expect that experience to engender, but he also taps into the notion of seasonality and regionality as tenets for inspiration.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in your career thus far?
I’ve moved around a lot since I was twenty-one, living in several places in the United States and overseas, so getting to know local chefs and becoming a part of the local scene was difficult. But, since I’ve been in Buffalo for the past five years, I think I’ve developed a fairly good network of friends.
What do most guests not realize about the work of running a restaurant?
Most people don’t realize that when you’re running a restaurant, you’re not just cooking. You’re also a counselor, a sometimes dishwasher, a repairman, an organizer, the voice of reason, and the morale booster. It’s much more than cooking; it’s putting all those pieces together and using them to be a leader.
What really separates very proficient and competent home cooks from professional chefs?
Equipment mostly, but also many home cooks are too worried about the exactness of a recipe. They should be tasting and adjusting to get a dish to be good rather than worrying exactly how much salt the recipe calls for.
From a chef’s point of view, how does operating a restaurant in a hotel differ from operating a freestanding establishment?
In a freestanding restaurant, you know your customer base, who’s coming into the restaurant, and you can allow your menu to cater to them. With a hotel restaurant, we have no idea who is staying at the hotel, and we don’t want to alienate them, so we need to have a menu with broad appeal.
How would you describe your culinary point of view?
Cook what you like to eat and keep it simple. I also like to look at nature. Sitting in the woods during hunting season, you can watch a deer eat acorns off the ground, root for the wild strawberries, or pick only the most perfect wild blackberry off a bush. Then it might eat some clover or scour an apple tree for one ready to pull. It makes me think about the dishes that could be developed. What is this animal eating in the wild that will translate to the plate?
Is there a specific technique you’re experimenting with or really enjoying right now?
I’m quite smitten with taking random by-products from a dish and trying to see if I can cycle them into something different. We’ve been playing around with the peach skins that remain after we make peach cobbler. I’ve been dehydrating those and seeing what we can do. I want to try and waste less, but I also like to think outside the box on how to get the most flavor out of something.
Which dish on your current menu is your personal favorite?
Since the very first menu, the bone marrow has been my favorite. It’s been a mainstay and I love it. Roasted and brined-bone marrow is served with a classic parsley gremolata and toasted bread. It’s like meat-flavored butter that just melts in your mouth, and it’s the perfect opening at a steakhouse.
What is the strangest item in your home fridge?
Salmon caviar that I made five years ago from the first wild king salmon I caught. She was full of eggs, and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I made caviar. I put it in mason jars, but the jars have been in my fridge for the past five years and, honestly, I’m a little scared to open them.
What do you do on your day off?
Spend as much time as I can with my newborn son. Sometimes I’m in the woods in a tree or out on the water fishing.
If you only had two-hours notice that twelve people were coming to your home for dinner, what would you make?
My house is tiny, so we’re having hamburgers and hotdogs and beer outside.
Christa Glennie Seychew is a freelance food writer who thinks meat butter should qualify as its own food group.