Chef Nicholas Calias
A Passion for Cooking & A Passion for Teaching
A passion for food, a passion for cooking, a passion for teaching.
Chef Nicholas Calias has all three. Calias, executive chef at Brasserie JO in Boston, mentors students, interns and employees. His expectations are high.
“Want to learn? Go the extra mile,” says Calias. “I want you to read at home. You should want to talk about food and have the drive to be better.”
His passion is one thing he says makes him a good mentor. His many years of experience have also prepared him to be a first-rate teacher.
“I love what I do,” says Calias. “I love putting out something the guests think is amazing. I love putting out something my staff is excited about. This business is intoxicating.”
If you want to make the perfect Floating Island – vanilla custard topped with a cloud of soft meringue – you’ll want to learn how by interning with Chef Nick, who says this is one dish on the menu that some in his kitchen struggle with.
The first words you’d hear from Calias would be these: “You ready? Be on time and bring a notebook. Write everything down. Ask a lot of questions. Have fun.”
Then you’d better be prepared to plunge on in.
Calias wants to make sure his interns do more than basic jobs in the kitchen.
“If I have an intern, that intern will spend two weeks in pastry, two weeks with the butcher, two weeks with the saucier. For a six-week internship, I need you to learn things.
“I’ve been through a lot. I know the business well. [If you’re] a mentor for a student, you have to want them to learn to be better. You want them to want your job.
“I take a good number of interns through my kitchen. I believe it’s our responsibility as chefs to help culinary students grow and become better cooks. They are our future, and it’s up to all of us to make sure it’s a bright one.”
Calias does a great deal of teaching, though not in a traditional classroom. He visits elementary school students to explain why they should eat healthy foods. He serves as a judge for culinary competitions and helps students prepare for such contests. He’s even emailed answers to questions sent to the American Culinary Federation’s web Chefpertise Guide, which features ACF-member chefs who have five years or more experience in an area of expertise and hold a position of sous chef or higher.
Another way Calias mentors others is through a tradition among professional chefs known as staging, in which a chef will work for a short stint in an unfamiliar kitchen in order to learn new skills.
“[Guest] chefs or potential employees come [and] get to see how things run and we get to see how they interact with our employees,” says Calias. “This is very important to create a great team.”
He adds, “ I have chef friends that come in just to play with foods with us because we are working on something cool or have a VIP event,” such as The American Culinary Federation President’s Ball & Chef of the Year dinner he hosted last year.
Calias, 42, started out as a fry cook at his father’s restaurant, Nicholas’ Country House in Seabrook, New Hampshire, when he was just 11. His dad asked him whether he wanted to wash dishes or cook food, and Calias chose cooking.
“I thought it was going to be better than washing dishes. I was wrong – I had to do both.”
He’s far from dishwashing now. Calias has been corporate executive chef at the Colonnade Hotel and Brasserie JO for nearly a decade and is also director of food and beverage.
In 2013 he received “Chef of the Year” honors from the Boston Chapter of the American Culinary Federation, and this year he won the “Chef of the Year” award from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
He has over twenty years of culinary experience; he was certified as an executive chef through the American Culinary Federation in 2008. He has worked for much of the last fifteen years with Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Merritt Hospitality.
His first role as executive chef was with The Beach House Restaurant in Hampton, New Hampshire. He is a graduate of Newbury College, where he earned a degree in culinary arts.
His first teachers were his mother, who worked at the Country House, and his father. Calias says he learned basic skills from them including sautéing, grilling and knife work, and because of them he developed a strong work ethic. The chef says work ethic can’t be taught to interns; “you can only hope at some point it’s instilled in them.”
Other important mentors and teachers in Calias’ life include Chef Annie Acabucci at Pine Brook Country Club in Massachusetts. “Coming out of culinary school I thought I was unstoppable. She proved me wrong,” says Calias. This was important to him because “she showed me I didn’t know everything and there was so much more to learn. I am still learning.”
Then there was Karim Lakhani, senior vice president of food and beverage at HEI Hotels & Resorts.
“He was the most brilliant food and beverage mind I have ever worked with. His concepts and creativity were unmatched. He showed me what food should be in hotels and what it could be. We called it ‘Beyond Banquets!’”
Of his current boss David Colella, Calias says, “He has mentored me in a different way. He allows me to be creative and gives me the trust to run all of the food and beverage operation at the Colonnade Hotel and Brasserie JO. Also he has me oversee The Inn at Longwood Hotel.
“But more than that he has shown me the importance of community and has taught me it’s our responsibility to mentor and help others grow. Through Mr. C. I have put myself out there and now sit on a number of boards. He also helps me because he never settles. He is always pushing me to be better.”
Calias is a board member of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation and the on the board of trustees for Le Cordon Bleu College. He also serves on the board of advisors for Newbury College and for the Seacoast School of Technology in connection with its culinary arts program. At Le Cordon Bleu and Newbury he offers input on curriculum, believing it’s important for chefs to consider what students need to learn. Board members “discuss what important pieces are missing. Good fundamentals: everything begins and ends there.”
Calias smiles when asked about whether, given the proliferation of reality TV cooking shows, students come into a restaurant kitchen with any misconceptions.
“Being on TV’s great, but you must understand that’s not the real world. You were on ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ you got yelled at, good for you. That’s not being a chef. A lot of students think, ‘I want to be the next Guy [Fieri], the next Bobby [Flay].’ They don’t know that Guy and Bobby started as line cooks.”
Calias says this is what makes someone a chef: “You need to love to cook and be creative. It has to be something inside of you that you can’t contain.”
Calias works with high school and college students preparing for culinary competitions, “either by phone, email, whatever is easiest for the students.” He recalls a trip he took to Nantucket to work with three students on their dishes – beet terrine, panseared salmon with mushroom risotto, and a Bavarian cream – for a national competition. And he judges contests such as the 2015 NH Skills USA Competition and the 2015 S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, for which he also mentored two students entered in the competition.
Calias also finds time to participate in charitable events. In May, he cooked with Chef Fieri from the Food Network and rode a bicycle 50 miles to raise money for Best Buddies International, which, according to its website, “creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
“I have been riding with Best Buddies for the last three years and have raised over $20,000 myself. It’s a great cause; these children and adults are just super special,” says Calias. Despite his busy schedule, Calias clearly loves sharing with others his experiences and knowledge in any way he can. Recently on Twitter he got this question: “My husband has been cooking for 14+ years. Any advice on trying to get a job in a great kitchen?”
“Work harder than everyone, listen, read and show the passion.”
First published August 2015