Editor’s Note: This is a story in two parts. The first part of the piece on Nick and Leslie Goellner ran yesterday (click here to read it) and talked about the couple’s journey around the globe, in the kitchen and to finding each other. We pick up the story with the Goellners moving away from Kansas City as their search to understand what makes a restaurant successful continues.
San Francisco Bound
Nick and Leslie moved West without jobs or a place to live. They knew they wanted to be based in San Francisco, but had difficulty lining up housing. They settled temporarily in Los Angeles and traveled to San Francisco on weekends, searching for an affordable residence. Then they struck gold and settled in for the next two-and-a-half years.
While Leslie worked long hours as general manager at Locanda, Nick worked at Boulevard, a regional American restaurant with French influences run by owner and Executive Chef Nancy Oakes. Boulevard is a prominent mainstay of the city’s vibrant restaurant scene, known for both the excellence of its food while balancing the demands of a high-volume restaurant.
He began cooking on lunch shifts before moving to dinner. Nick admits, “I struggled there as a line cook on dinner shifts.”
The high-volume pace took perseverance. He adapted and soon began cooking the line for dinner, gradually rotating to work each station in the kitchen. Next, he served as expeditor, the traffic cop role on the other side of the cooking line responsible for communicating with the chef, cooks and servers to get food from the kitchen to the table with accuracy and efficiency.
“As the expeditor, I had to manage a large line of cooks under pressure,” says Nick. It was great management experience. The culture was different from anywhere else I had worked.”
Despite the high-volume kitchen producing an average of 270 covers, 300 on weekends, at a one-Michelin star restaurant, Boulevard had a solid system in place.
“There’s no yelling or sarcasm,” says Nick. “Negative emotion doesn’t enter into the kitchen. No one ever raises their voice. It was a good experience. They helped me a lot.”
“He learned patience,” says Leslie. “How to remain calm when extremely busy.”
Before Nick left Boulevard, he was promoted to sous chef. He gleaned every teaspoon of professional experience he could from owner Nancy Oakes and the entire team.
“Far and away, I learned the most in my cooking career at Boulevard,” says Nick, 27-years-old at the time. “They have good staff producing consistent, quality food. It was a crash course in preparing and serving a large amount of food. I came away a better cook.”
Nick also learned how a restaurant like Boulevard makes money while operating with tight profit margins. He says, “It’s important to work with someone that knows how to make money. We want to model our restaurant after others that have done it.”
Three Months in Denmark
“I didn’t understand what I was looking at in the kitchen on the first day,” Nick says about commencing his stage at Noma.
The kitchen, preparation and cooking processes are tailored to heighten and execute on an exacting creative level without compromising quality.
“The chefs are unafraid to do things their own way,” says Nick. “There’s no fear of failing.”
Nick is quick to point out that he and other interns did not cook side-by-side with Chef René Redzepi at two-Michelin star Noma. Still, he worked with talented chefs in a competitive, pressure-cooker environment where the workday regularly spanned 16 hours (19 hours on Saturdays).
The patience that Nick acquired in Boulevard’s busy, fast-paced kitchen served him well. Like each previous kitchen experience, Nick found his responsibilities at Noma to be demanding but rewarding. He worked in several positions and knocked out mind-numbing tasks like peeling beechnuts for 90 minutes, although such work amounted to a small portion of his overall workday.
“We would deep clean the kitchen three times a day,” says Nick. “We made toothpicks.”
Still, the internship at Noma was not drudgery by any means. Nick also had the opportunity to cook the staff meal for 90 people. He logged a week foraging for local ingredients, a practice fundamental to the Nordic cuisine at Noma.
He also spent four weeks working in the service kitchen and nearly five weeks working in the Test Kitchen, a rare opportunity for interns. This kitchen is separate from the upstairs restaurant kitchen, downstairs production kitchen and Fermentation Lab, the latter being housed in shipping containers to test fermentation methods.
“All they do is create in the Test Kitchen. I was assisting, not creating. I worked with two chefs in the Test Kitchen,” says Nick. “René is in the Test Kitchen quite often. He is a big part of the day-to-day [operation] and is a vital part of the creative process.”
Nick completed manual labor in the test kitchen rather than cook. He washed all of the dishes. He did knife work for large volume tasks. He made rose petal oil from loads of fresh flowers. He found an upside to the experiences he faced.
“It was great access to René. I spoke with him quite a bit. Not about cooking. He’s more interested in your life story,” says Nick.
More importantly, Nick’s access to the creative process enabled him “to really see how and what they did with products.”
Nick has no regrets about the long, exhausting hours and hard work. He says, “It’s incredibly worth it. It’s good to go into a situation where others are better. You get better. You can’t create this type of food without working long hours.”
At home, Leslie was Nick’s primary support while separated from family and friends.
“Nick came home stressed,” says Leslie. “He worried a lot that he was not doing good enough.”
In July 2015, 37 chefs at the world’s top restaurants took part in the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, an event where the chefs swapped roles and worked in another’s kitchen. The chefs, and their newly-adopted staff, prepared a menu using local ingredients. Nick worked in the kitchen with the Mission Chinese Food NYC kitchen crew during the whole week of the chef shuffle, when Chef Danny Bowien made an eight-course meal at Noma.
“I met Danny Bowien,” says Nick of the night. “I also made a lot of friends at Noma. They’re a great group of people. Everyone is so motivated.”
Leslie shares a quick anecdote about their Danish adventure, despite the stressful toll it took on her husband.
“When we ate at Noma before we left, it was evident to me how they liked Nick,” she says.
The kitchen staff at Noma not only cook, they also serve each dish tableside and then return to the kitchen to continue cooking.
“Every single staff member that came out to serve us would take a jab at Nick,” says Leslie, familiar with the camaraderie of restaurant life. She told him at that meal, “They really like you.”
Leslie and Nick sit in the outdoor courtyard of Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters. They returned to Kansas City in late July and are still getting their bearings. It’s a slightly humid morning as sunlight skims past tropical plants and casts shadows. The couple finish recounting their past, a coffee-and-cream blend of professional experience and personal growth that has led them back to Kansas City. They have reunited with family and slowly reconnected with friends, not yet ready to jump into the social merry-go-round until they can, once again, find a long-term place to settle down. For now, it seems, Kansas City will be their home for personal and professional reasons.
“We want to open a small place in Kansas City,” says Leslie. “The focus will be on wine, beer and a small menu.”
The duo are reluctant to share too much. Together, they have been formulating a business plan and shaping the contours of their own restaurant-to-be since their journey through San Francisco and Denmark.
While they refine the details, they want to re-introduce themselves to the local culinary and dining community.
“We’ll do some pop-ups and small private dinners,” says Nick. “The food will be rustic and approachable.”
He hints that the food will have a French backbone in terms of technique, given his training and experience, but won’t be bound that that culinary tradition or style. Nor will the mantra of locally-sourced ingredients define the food. Leslie and Nick have distinct ideas but talk in broad brushstrokes, suggesting that the cuisine and other elements will be interconnected by two European cultures.
They will focus on wine and beer foremost, rather than compete with the thriving cocktail culture at other establishments. They also have a specific idea for the restaurant’s setting and function, what it will be versus what it won’t be.
“We want to open a place where people want to come in all the time,” says Leslie. “Not a special occasion place.”
“My father owns a construction company,” says Nick. “It’ll be the kind of place where he can come in to get a beer.”
Whatever the occasion, odds are that the future restaurant that Leslie and Nick Goellner will be something quite special, if unpretentious in nature.
The couple says goodbye and departs, once again traveling in search of an apartment in the city they can finally, truly call home.