Nick and Leslie Goellner, formerly with The Rieger, have returned to Kansas City in recent weeks with plans to eventually open a restaurant. The young couple, already restaurant industry veterans by their early thirties, spent several years in San Francisco and a three-month residence in Denmark, where Nick completed an intense stage at Chef René Redzepi’s world-class restaurant Noma.
The French term stage refers to an unpaid internship when a cook or chef works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. Nick’s experience was perhaps the most grueling yet gratifying of his career.
“Noma was intense,” says Nick. “Everything is amplified. Each chef and cook is extremely good. There’s no comfort zone. It’s constant hard work in a kitchen unlike anywhere else. I’ve never seen people run like that in a kitchen before. If you need something, you run.”
Speaking of running, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How Nick and Leslie went from here to there and back is an origin story worth exploring. Fasten your seatbelts.
Roundtrip: Kansas City to New York
Leslie Newsam (her maiden name) began working in restaurants at the tender age of fourteen. Eventually, she began working as a server at Room 39, the W 39th Street restaurant co-founded in 2004 by Ted Habiger and Andy Sloan. She reached a turning point in her early restaurant career where she wanted to grow in her profession.
“I asked Ted, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’” Leslie says. “He told me to go to New York. My goal was to work for Danny Meyer.”
Danny Meyer, an acclaimed restaurant maven in New York, helms the Union Square Hospitality Group that includes noted establishments such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Marta and The Modern. Habiger cut his teeth in the restaurant industry working at Union Square Cafe before he came to Kansas City.
Leslie initially landed a position at JoJo, the first of renowned Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants in New York City. Next, she moved to The Modern, a French-New American restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art, where she worked for two-and-a-half years as a server and bartender.
Afterward, Leslie returned to Kansas City and worked at Room 39 in Mission Farms, the Leawood outpost of Room 39 now solely owned by Habiger. She contacted Howard Hanna, a former chef at Room 39, in summer 2010 when she learned he was planning to open his own restaurant. Hanna hired her to be the assistant manager for The Rieger, which didn’t open until December the following year.
Meanwhile, Leslie continued work at Room 39 until The Rieger opened. She also reconnected with mother-and-daughter team Victoria Shriver Goellner and Pastry Chef Natasha Goellner, who first opened Natasha’s Mulberry and Mott on W 39th Street in midtown Kansas City. The pastry shop was located near the original Room 39. Both businesses later opened locations near each other in Mission Farms.
During a lunch visit, the Goellners also shared the news that Nick, Vickie’s son and Tasha’s brother, was moving to Kansas City and seeking a restaurant job. Leslie suggested that he contact Hanna.
Nick Goellner began working at The Rieger in September 2010, where he gradually got to know Leslie Newsam.
“As the only front of the house person at the time, I introduced myself to the kitchen staff,” says Leslie. “I was excited to meet Nick, since I knew his mom and sister.”
Leslie introduced herself and explained the family connection with enthusiasm.
“Nick’s response was, ‘Cool,’” she says now with a laugh. “He is so serious when cooking. All professional. I thought, “Okay, see ya later.”
Leslie abided by her rule of management not dating the staff. For a time. “We began dating in January 2011 and had fun working together.”
Leslie and Nick left The Rieger in January 2012 to live and work in San Francisco. She says, “We wanted to do different things for our next experience. We didn’t work together.
Leslie landed a position as floor manager at Locanda Osteria and Bar, run by the restaurant owners Craig and Annie Stoll of the Delfina Restaurant Group. Within eight months, she became general manager of the restaurant.
“We wanted to learn about the restaurant business,” says Nick. “It was hard on our relationship at times but easier than we thought because we had both worked in the industry.”
“We didn’t have a day off together for the first six months,” recalls Leslie.
“She gained more experience than me. She was so good at her job,” says Nick. “It was cool to see her get better.”
Leslie focused on learning the numbers behind the restaurant business. For their future goal of owning a restaurant, Leslie wanted to understand how successful restaurant owners like the Stolls had achieved their success from a dollars-and-cents standpoint.
“We wanted to work for places that knew how to make money,” says Nick. “It’s important to understand where the money comes from and goes.”
Leslie and Nick married in San Francisco in March 2014 and went to Tokyo for their honeymoon, where eating and traveling was a central part of their new life as the Goellners.
Nick and Leslie were watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, specifically, Season 2, Episode 4, titled “Copenhagen.” The episode focused solely on Chef Rene Redzepi and Noma, considered by many to be “the best restaurant in the world.”
Nick learned that the restaurant accepted chefs and cooks to work a three-month stage for a brief, immersive stint. He turned to Leslie.
“What if I applied?” he asked.
“Okay. I’ll go with you,” Leslie said without hesitation.
Nick applied in August 2014. He initiated communication via email, submitted his resume, and learned via email that he had advanced to the second round.
“A chef reviews the resume and essay and decides,” says Nick, who was selected. “They get a good mix, a melting pot of very experienced chefs and cooks for a group of 12 interns.”
Nick’s fellow interns included the head chef from master Chef Paul Bocuse’s restaurant and a 22-year-old cook from the test kitchen at Central. Given his limited cooking experience at that point in his career, Nick knew the competition was daunting.
“I really had to push to make up for my experience,” he says. “By the end of the stage, the group finished with five or six people. We lost a lot.”
See the World
Nick Goellner graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in political science. He completed an internship at the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka.
“It was disenchanting,” he says. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.”
Nick redirected his career toward the kitchen. He enrolled at the French Culinary Institute, now known as the International Culinary Center based in Manhattan, where his sister Tasha had finished studying pastry.
After graduation, Nick took an internship on The World, a 644-foot private luxury ship with 165 residences. Each resident not only owns their individual residences, but collectively, they own the ship, and have “an endless thirst for knowledge, adventure and of course, travel.”
The ship and its globe-trotting residents’ dining habits afforded Nick the opportunity to traverse the planet to exclusive destinations over a four-month span. His travels included stops in Russia, Turkey and the Ukraine.
“I was underqualified,” says Nick, fresh out of culinary school at the time. “We worked seven days a week but it was a fun experience. I was lucky to be placed there. It was a good job for someone young, where the staff went out at night.”
Once back in New York, Nick worked for Executive Chef Alain Allegretti at his restaurant Allegretti for one year.
“I worked garde manger,” says Nick. “We pushed really hard. I learned a lot.”
Next, Nick returned to Kansas City for a break. Then a friend called him with an opportunity to work as a tournant – a chef that can run any station in the kitchen – at the Robert Morris Inn and Tavern in Oxford, Maryland. Nick worked as a line cook at the historic inn, a seasonal tourist destination, in the kitchen under a British chef for a summer to “help get the place open.”
Once he returned to Kansas City, Nick landed a position at The Rieger as the grill cook.
“I struggled at first. It was different than what I had done before,” says Nick. “Howard [Hanna] had faith in the people he hired. That helped me become more confident and thrive. It was neat to see how the restaurant ran.”
Nick was promoted to sous chef and also found his future wife.[The story continues tomorrow with more on the kitchen at Noma and the Goellner’s plans in Kansas City.]