There is more than one path to climb in the restaurant business.
At age 12, Jim Nicholas landed his first job, as a dishwasher — but don’t tell the employer that hired him. At that time, 14 was the age requirement. Nicholas was determined to land a job “purely to have spending money, so (I) twisted things just a bit.”
That’s how Nicholas, who now owns Wildwood Bar and Grill, in Rochester, got his start in the business.
Born and raised in the town of Macomb, in central Illinois, Nicholas graduated from high school in 1996 and moved to the Quad Cities. During his first year there, when he was trying to decide what he wanted to do for his career, he took a job managing an Italian restaurant. He discovered that he simply loved all aspects of the position, from the ambiance and the kitchen.
In 1999, he took a position as a line cook at a hotel in the area. He loved it. What followed is no surprise: Nicholas went to culinary school, at Scottsdale Culinary in Arizona, today Cordon Bleu. He went on to work at a country club there for a few years before moving to Okoboji, Iowa, in 2002. It was here that Nicholas met his wife and was married a year later.
They decided to move to Rochester, after the country club here recruited him as their banquet chef. “We simply fell in love with the community,” he said.
Change struck again in 2006, when the Ramada Hotel (now Kahler Apache) asked him to become their executive chef. Fast forward another five years and his career took another direction. Rookies Sports Grill and Bar had been closed about a year and a half. Talking with the hotel owner at that time, the need for a dining venue on the property became clear. The potential was there, as well as the fact that the southwest area of town had limited dining options.
In 2011, Nicholas opened Wildwood, naming it for his love for the outdoors, and making himself the point person for all aspects of planning and launching the new venue.
Nicholas has a “hands-on” style in the kitchen, starting with creating a recipe on paper, then tweaking it based on seasonal availability of fresh ingredients. The real test comes with the first preparation and test-tasting.
His personal favorite foods change with the season. Spring and summer finds him craving grilled fish with greens and a nice vinaigrette; and strawberries when he can obtain them locally, rather than having them shipped.
Must-have ingredients in Nicholas’ kitchen include olive oil, salt (sparingly, but then he has his own signature seasoning blends), sugar, mushrooms and beef. His biggest challenge, in a commercial kitchen, is making sure that all ingredients and final dishes are fresh, and stay fresh.
“Using food in a timely manner, such that all stays fresh, is an ongoing challenge for any professional chef,” he said.
Father of three, Nicholas puts great value on time spent with his wife and three children, 7-year-old twins and a 3-year-old. Nicholas looks forward to when the kids can come and work with him in the restaurant, but will encourage them to follow their career passion, whatever it is.
Needless to say, the workday keeps Nicholas extremely busy. In his spare time, he loves to surf the Internet. Following many of the big-city restaurants on Twitter is a favorite pastime.
Nicholas chuckles slightly before commenting on the Rochester restaurant scene, noting how it appears we are learning to “dress up the comfort foods of Minnesota.” That said, he dines out often and celebrates that “Rochester is a growing food scene and diners are more adventurous in trying new things.”
Nicholas shows his creativity with Minnesota walleye in presentations such as the Red Lake Reuben, which has been a menu favorite at Wildwood since he introduced it.
So what is next for Nicholas? Well, he admits he is still looking for someone to teach him how to make lefse, wishing he had paid more attention when his grandmother would be preparing a batch.
Watch here in upcoming weeks for an update on the Minnesota Wine Industry and local wineries. Meanwhile, mark your calendars for Aug. 29-30, when Salem Glen Winery will host its first annual fiber art fair. Vendors, including a food vendor, will be on site throughout the weekend and interesting demonstrations are scheduled. Of course, wine tasting will be available. The event is held in conjunction with the Fiber Arts Guild. For more information, visit salemglenvineyard.com/fiber_art.html.