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Bobby Little Of Chez Nick: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef

You never know what your idea can trigger. Be Kind.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Bobby Little.

Bobby Little is the chef-partner and owner of Chez Nick, Leroy’s and Little Urban Food & Drink catering company. Raised on his family farm in a small town in Kentucky, Bobby grew up in the seasons and with a love for food. Bobby began his culinary education by working at the award-winning The Village Pub in Woodside CA, before moving to New York City and working in restaurants such as Marc Forgione, Batard, Khe-Yo and Ai Fiori. At Ai Fiori, he met fellow chef Chad Urban and the two remained in touch for several years before working together again at Batard. After reuniting, Bobby and Chad came up with the idea to open their own restaurant, where they could apply Michelin-starred techniques to affordable seasonal-inspired American cuisine. In 2020, Bobby & Chad opened Chez Nick, a neighbor-hood standout on the Upper East Side of Manhattan Leroy’s and Little Urban Catering.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I grew up around food — we had our own garden, raised chicken and sheep on our small farm. I was able to learn where food came from doing 4-h and working on farms. When I was old enough I got my first restaurant job at Panera Bread and started cooking for myself at home. Everything started to add up and fall into place, where the more I learned, the more I became interested in cooking as a career. It was always a dream of mine to own my own business, so that was always at the forefront of me wanting to become a chef!

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us? I wouldn’t say that we have one specific type of food-the beauty of American Cuisine is that we grow up in this melting pot of people and get to experience all sorts of flavors and cuisines. No matter where you grow up. So for us it is fun to pull where we are from and what we have learned into our dishes.

I love Loatian food. I was lucky enough to meet Chef Phet Schwader when I worked at Marc Forgione and got to work with him again when he opened Khe-Yo. I learned so many different techniques and flavors from him that I fold into the menus at the restaurants. Now, I can’t imagine cooking without fish sauce and it’s at Khe-Yo where I learned how to hone that balance.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that has happened to you since you became a chef? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

We had a 300 person catering we were preparing for over two days. It was one of the biggest ones we had ever done, and we were very excited for it as we were brand new to the catering world. We had finished marinating and cooking everything we could ahead of time, and were completely ready to go. When we came back the next day, three of our largest lexan containers had toppled over — we had stacked everything too high! Rookie mistake. We were left with three hours to prepare what had taken us two days to get ready! We luckily got everything done, but I learned two things from this experience. First, always double check your work and take extra care of anything you put away no matter how confident you are. And secondly, when push comes to shove in this industry, if you focus hard enough you can get anything done.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

When I was in culinary school, I was moonlighting at a restaurant called the Village Pub. They took me in as an intern and the deal was that I would get paid once I could work a station. So I worked hard every single day to be able to work at a station. I went to school at 7am and drove straight to the Pub after we got out at 3pm and I would stay until close and do whatever was needed. I wanted to succeed so I pushed myself, and I also wanted to get paid!

So when the Chef finally said I could start training on Entremet, I was super excited. I was finally going to be on the line. After a week of training I was able to work the station alone, but at the end of the night a second set of issues arose. We were supposed to break down our stations and everyone else in the kitchen was very experienced. They were all done before it felt like I even began. I literally had no idea how to break down and clean the fryer, so I stood there frozen on the verge of breaking down. Finally one of the saute guys took pity on me and taught me how to do it. And it was then I realized that there was more to this than just cooking. I needed to understand everything. I needed to ask questions before I encountered the problems and learned to ALWAYS help out someone in need.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about? Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Balance. The dish needs to balance a little sweet, bitter, acid, heat and fat. If you balance everything the right way-you’ve got a winner.

My perfect meal is simple: a whole roasted chicken, cooked over shallots and mushrooms, served with a quick pan sauce and roasted potatoes. That’s perfect for me.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

Now that we are more spread out with two restaurants, my main focus is on managing the team. However, for inspiration we always pore over cookbooks. One of my favorites and long time inspirations was always Zuni Cafe. Judy Rogers just had a way of expressing flavors that really spoke to me. It’s probably my favorite cookbook I always reach for.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Currently, we are focusing on our two restaurants Chez Nick & Leroy’s, and trying to rebuild our catering arm which took the biggest hit during covid. I think taking a year to focus on this organic catering growth and leaning into our current businesses will set us up for future success. And that for me is exciting. I want everything to be the best it can possibly be.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

I am not sure I am the best person to give this advice. I do my best to focus on taking time for myself and my family. However, it just doesn’t always work out. I would say to always keep trying to take care of yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself for taking the time and making an effort to.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. You will not travel (at least not as much as you think)! When I got into cooking I thought it would take me to all these exotic places, and I would cook all over the world. I have traveled and I have gotten to cook in cool locations however, I have not done near as much as I thought I would. I thought I would be training in Europe for years. The reality is that it’s tough to take a trip or get a visa, especially on a cook’s budget!

2. That you should not go to culinary school. I wish I had just moved to California, stayed with a relative and knocked on doors. Because while I did learn and meet great friends in culinary school. I learned everything I know on the job doing things repeatedly thousands of times! I would have saved money and been in a better spot for starting my career.

3. Take more time off! I wish someone had expressed to me just how little time you have when you start cooking and enter this career path. You miss a lot of special events, for family and friends. However, on top of that no one I know takes enough time off. So burnout is rampant and I think we are seeing a lot of that coming out of the pandemic.

4. Take your time! I wish I had taken more time when I was a cook to slow down the process, I always had a goal to open my own restaurant by the time I was thirty. So for all of my career that’s all I strove for, and I didn’t take time to sit back and enjoy the ride.

5. The final item is actually some advice I received in culinary school that also stuck with me. I know it’s not a wish but the advice was as good as it gets and something I always try to pass on. Chef Peter, one of our culinary instructors told the class to work for five great chefs and then go and pursue your own chef job. I thought it was great advice because you are focusing on quality over quantity. It means you are sticking with your chefs and learning more, and then at the end of that run you are ready to run your own kitchen. Because you have taken the time, soaked up the knowledge and learned from five extraordinary chefs.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

The Burger! And the brussels sprouts!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

You never know what your idea can trigger. Be Kind.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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