Rooftop Photos courtesy of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. Food Photos Courtesy of Castile Restaurant.
FROM THE MOMENT WE ARRIVED AT CASTILE RESTAURANT in the Kimpton Hotel Zamora to interview Chef Nicolas, we felt its Mediterranean influences. Located on the Intracoastal waterway in St. Pete Beach across the street from the ocean, you feel like you’re on vacation. Our first stop was the beautiful balcony overlooking the water where a manatee had just been spotted. Castile offers comfortable outdoor seating as well as a separate rooftop bar (called 360º Rooftop) allowing you to take advantage of Florida’s beautiful year-round weather. The restaurant inside presents a perfectly romantic atmosphere. After a quick tour, we sat down with Chef Nicolas to learn more about his background and what inspires him in his new role as Executive Chef.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got started in the culinary world?
I was born in the north of France in a city called Rouen and lived in France for 18 years. My mother is Italian, my father is French. My family has been in the hospitality business as long as I can remember. As young as 11 or 12 years old, I remember washing dishes and making salads at a pizzeria. My grandmother was cooking a lot too—she was from Italy so her background is obviously Italian, and I started learning from her. At 16, I went to culinary school for two years. After, I worked for a year in Leon in the South of France. I decided to go to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and got a job as a cook. At 19 I got a job as a sous chef with the Westin Hotels and worked my way up from there.
How did you find yourself in St. Pete?
I loved Mexico and the United States was never my plan, but 15 years ago I met a woman who was moving to San Antonio. I decided to join her and stayed in Texas until 2010. After my daughter moved to Tampa, I took a job at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando and then got the opportunity to become the Executive Chef here at Castile, and I’ve been here since September 2016.
What inspires you as a chef?
It’s inspiring to watch customers eat my food. I spend so much time thinking about a dish and putting it together, figuring out if it will work and wondering if the customers will like it. When I look out and see people eating and I see the conversations starting, that’s what really drives me. I also get inspired by colors and textures.
What is the most difficult part about being a chef and what is the most rewarding?
Most difficult is not seeing my daughter as often as I want to. Planning your personal and private life is nearly impossible. I think that’s the downside for any chef.
The best? It’s never boring. There’s always something new coming at you, always a surprise. You don’t really have the same lifestyle as anyone else. It’s great to be an artist and touch food and make people happy with what you do best.
How would you describe your culinary style?
My style is a lot of Mexican influence with French techniques. I also really love Italian and Mediterranean food, so I bring a lot of those ingredients to my cooking as well. Lots of tomatoes, olives and fennel. I like to think I’m somewhere in between fine dining and bistro casual. Here I am doing Spanish-Mediterranean with French techniques.
What do you mean by French techniques?
Basic sauces, reductions… techniques like how to make a sauce. I teach my team some techniques from home, but I don’t call the food “French” because it’s not French food. I add spices that make it Spanish. It’s a French influence, so I call it French techniques because I use a lot of what I learned from France.
Do you eat at other restaurants in the Tampa Bay area? What are some of your favorites?
I’ll be honest with you… in the 8 months I’ve lived here I haven’t really had the chance to explore other restaurants. I’ve been to Mis en Place once. I had a chicken liver moose and loved it—can’t wait to go back and have dinner with my wife. I went to the Oyster Bar in downtown St. Pete and enjoyed my time there. But mostly I’ve been focusing here and settling in Florida. I have a list of places I want to try. Your Q&A with BT Nguyen made me really curious to see what she does over there. The Mill is also on my list.
What was your most memorable meal?
That’s a tough question… Nothing immediately comes to mind but I know where I’d like to go to get that memorable meal.
Where is that?
The French Laundry in Napa—it is Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant. He’s one of the best American chef’s in the country, and the world. I’m drawn in by his style and use some of those techniques in my food. I inspire myself from that.
What is your favorite thing to make for yourself?
Spring rolls. I love Vietnamese food. I just cooked spring rolls with my daughter. She wants to be a chef, unfortunately (he laughs). I’m easy to please when it comes to Vietnamese food. Whenever I have a craving, I eat Phó and spring rolls. It’s clean, it’s light and I love that.
Do you cook at home a lot?
I cook boring food at home. Chicken and rice, broccoli and green beans. Once in awhile, I’ll go all out and cook all day with my daughter. But what I do here, I don’t do at home. When I step out of my work, I stop working and do something else.
Can you describe your menu for us?
My menu is Spanish-inspired. It’s not Spanish food; I don’t want people to misunderstand. If you come here, you won’t get a classic, traditional dish that you find in Spain. The menu is inspired from dishes from regions of Spain, and then I make them my own. I’ll take some ingredients out, or make it more modern… just put my little touch on it. But the menu is Spanish and Mediterranean-inspired.
I have gnocchi on the menu, I have lamb shank with cuscus, I have pimento cheese, which is from Spain, but I don’t serve it with bread. Instead I serve it with beef tendon. So I take dishes that inspire me and put my touch on it. Spanish-inspired with the Chef’s touch because I don’t want to copy anything. The dishes you have here, you won’t have anywhere else because they’re mine.
Can you tell us about the seafood on your menu? Where does it come from?
I work with a local company. Oysters come from the gulf. Grouper when I can get it, and red snapper. I do my best to get the local ingredients when they’re available.
What is your favorite menu item?
The Olive Gnocchi. It’s a special on Sundays (for now). It’s my grandmother’s recipe and I put my trick to it. I put some black and green olives in it, some Parmesan cheese and a little bit of Espelette pepper to give it a little spice (chili from Spain). I sauté them with mushrooms, onions and escargot with a nice slice of prosciutto on top. If I was a guest, I would come here for that. I love the flavors in it. I think it represents what I want to do and where I come from.
What are some of the challenges of coming up with new menu items?
As a chef, it’s challenging when you start on an idea of a dish and you have a clear vision of it, and it ultimately doesn’t work because it’s not popular with the guests. Not because it’s bad, but because that’s not what people want. I always try to improve my dishes so that they appeal to a wider audience. You always have to consider what’s best for the guest.
I’m always tweaking. Every dish I have on this menu I’ve never done before. They are all new inspirations from this location. It was a risk, but I don’t like to do the same thing twice. I tweak them every day with the sauces and ingredients.