Getting to know Chef Nico / Duet Jazz
Happy Sunday dears!
I am thrilled to share this wonderful Q+A with with the very talented Chef Nico Albert from Tulsa’s Duet Jazz. I told you a little bit about Duet Jazz in my Francophile’s Guide To Tulsa. Allow me to feel just a little smug whilst I talk about Duet Jazz. Seriously, it's all for you wonderful beings because you all deserve good restaurants in your life; in fact, you need them in your life.
noun: a performance by two people, especially singers, instrumentalists, or dancers.
Duet is bringing amazing food and jazz music to downtown Tulsa! Upstairs guests will find an incredible culinary experience, downstairs they will be entertained in an intimate, 140-seat, state-of-the-art jazz club with a full-service bar and impressive wine list. Two amazing experiences – one amazing Duet!
Anyway, let's get down to business.
The restaurant itself is beautiful; mixing warm and cool tones perfectly with natural light flooding through the windows which the plants of course, seem to love. You can choose to perch yourself at the counter bar or take a table in the main room filled with cozy tables and pretty corners. The menu is a never-ending list of delicious sounding dishes, making decisions that bit harder but I think we managed to make two rather good choices...Oh the brunch and dinner bliss! Incase you have not been yet.. Duet Jazz is a slice of heaven in Tulsa. Check it out for yourself soon and in the mean time, drool over their menu here: https://www.duetjazz.com/menu. Duet’s restaurant is located in the historic Archer Building in the heart of the Tulsa Arts District. Reservations are not required, but highly recommended. And they offer a Saturday and Sunday brunch!
Let’s get to know Duet’s Executive Chef a little bit better, shall we?!!
A veteran of many of Tulsa’s favorite kitchens including the Brasserie and Lucky’s on Cherry Street, Executive Chef Nico Albert followed a 2-year adventure in craft cocktail bartending by opening a kitchen at MixCo Bar featuring unconventional interpretations of classic pub food. Now leading the culinary team as Executive Chef at Duet, Chef Nico draws on her Acadian and Native American heritage, as well as her continuing affair with Mexican and New Orleans culture and cuisine, to create vibrant, eclectic dishes that are simultaneously comforting and exotic.
Q + A WITH CHEF NICO
-When did your love for cooking begin?
I was very fortunate that in my family, we almost always ate from scratch, home-cooked meals together. So I grew up watching and helping my mom in the kitchen, and watching cooking shows all the time with my dad. So in that way, in the culture of my family, cooking has always a part of my life.
-Did you always think you would become a chef, or did you have other plans in mind?
I dabbled in many things, as most kids do! I went from wanting to be a Navy SEAL, to a National Geographic photographer, veterinarian, novelist, travel writer, jazz singer. In the meantime I got a job in a restaurant to pay bills after high school. I was a hostess, ba- back, and waited tables over the years, but always loved the loud frantic and dangerous din of the kitchens in all the restaurants I worked in. Then, in my early 20's in search of a more steady paycheck I applied for a job working the salad station at a local members-only dinner club, which was my first formal line cooking gig. I realized I was pretty good at it and finally decided to commit to cooking as a career and started rising in the ranks.
-Where do you find the most inspiration for your dishes?
I am a research nerd at heart, I love learning about other cultures through their food traditions. So when I'm presented with an ingredient I want to feature, I read read read! I start with the question where does this ingredient originally come from? That inevitably leads me to discover what people culturally use the ingredient, and I have to find out how and why they use it and what it means to them. I love to search out what story is behind a dish so I can tell that story in the most delicious and authentic way possible.
-Duet Jazz is such a unique venture for Tulsa. How would you describe it to someone who has never been?!
Duet is like an oasis! We have such a beautiful atmosphere that feels comfortable but exotic at the same time, and I think the food reflects that ambiance too. It's a place to treat yourself to a little mini-getaway with really fun and inventive food and drinks, and then catch some live music in a cool cozy basement jazz club. You won't believe you're in Tulsa!
-Tell us a little bit about a day in the life of Chef Nico?
I usually start my day around 8a.m. with my phone buzzing with questions and requests from my line cooks and others, which gets me up and moving. I take a few moments to greet my two pet rabbits, Wilma and Winona, tend to their "rabbitat" which takes up a questionable amount of space in my living room, and shower them with fresh fruit and veg treats until I have to tear myself away and leave the house. I head to Duet, running errands on the way for specialty ingredients we're using for specials (I frequent Nam Hai International Market and various Latin markets all over Tulsa), picking up fresh bolillos from Pancho Anaya bakery, occasionally treating myself to cafe con lechè while I'm there, because I'm weak-willed when it comes to their Cafe de Olla! When I arrive with all my groceries to Duet, there's often a "Murphy's Law" style restaurant challenge to conquer, ie a broken dishwasher, a cook calling in sick, a delivery gone wrong. I handle the emergencies then inventory product to see what we may need to order for the next few days, and check our reservation book to see who's coming to visit us that night! The afternoon is full of emails to answer, special event menus to plan, recipes to edit, schedules to write, and new menu items to research, while fielding questions from cooks wanting to ensure they're getting things right in the kitchen. When dinnertime rolls around, I'm usually on the line plating food, tasting sauces, and helping out where I'm needed. Once business dies down, I head home to relax. I usually make a late dinner and settle in on the couch with my family for a movie that I inevitable will fall asleep in the middle of!
-On your day off, what are you likely doing?
I tend to load up my free time with side projects, so honestly if I'm not at Duet, I'm probably out working on something else! BUT if the stars align and I get a day off with no pressing projects to work on, with some nice sunny weather, I am floating in our pool! We just moved into a house that we are doing a bunch of work on, so I try to make some progress on one of our many home improvement messes. It's also powwow season, so my family and I will often be found dancing or just enjoying the festivities at powwows around the Tulsa area.
-The Tulsa World recently covered you in a “People to Watch in 2019” story and discussed your magnificent work at Duet Jazz. On top of that, you were also in a PBS series covering American Indian eatery. Tell us about these exciting moments in your career.
The "People to Watch" distinction was such a fun surprise! I'm so flattered and hope that I'm living up to the hype so far! The PBS project was a really special thing to be involved in. I was able to take their film crew on a foraging trip with my stepdaughter to gather wild sumac to make a summery sumac tea, and filmed a segment about making that and a traditional Cherokee bean bread. I am always honored to represent my people and share our food traditions with a broader audience, especially a wide audience like the PBS series had! The exposure has led to a lot of other exciting projects in the realm of Native cuisine, which is wonderful. I always welcome any opportunity to incorporate my Native heritage into projects that move my career forward.
-You are inspired by the French Quarter. What are some of the hugest inspirations that you like to prepare that help you reminisce about the quarter?!
The food culture and history in New Orleans is so SO rich, I never get tired of it! The cajun and creole food traditions have such deep roots with all kinds of stories to uncover, and when you're there it's like every meal has such significance. So everything I've eaten in my time spent in New Orleans comes with its own vivid memory, whether it was the incredible handmade noodles and dumplings at a little Marigny spot called Bao & Noodle, or Vietcajun-style crawfish boil on the sidewalk outside of Black Penny, or smashing a late-night catfish poboy at Markey's Bar around the corner from my friend Johnathon's place. Pierogies at Siberia Bar before I see some crazy heavy music. So many tasty memories! There are quite a few dishes on the Duet menu that were inspired by things I eat in NOLA, like our Vietcajun Mussels, the Hot Honey Brined Roasted Chicken with butter beans. Even the sauce we serve with our lamb started from a dish I had that blew me away on one of my visits.
-What makes the French Quarter so special to you?
I always spend a lot of time moving around all over the place, the Bywater, Marigny, St. Roch, Treme, AND the Quarter, so I've got favorite spots all over the city. There's just a magic, mystery and romance to New Orleans wherever you go- with all the beads and Spanish moss hanging in the trees, everything in a state of decay and renewal all at the same time. It's a city where you can feel the misery of generations on generations, there are ghosts everywhere, but they coexist with all this vigorous, loud joyful hope. All of that energy in the air just makes me feel more myself.
-Would you say this is your favorite style to cook?
It's ONE of my favorites haha I like to mash them all together - Native American, Mexican, Cajun, Creole, they all actually share a lot of common influences. I love to cook anything that feels warm and comforting. And anything with chiles. Those two things are kind of synonymous for me.
-What are your favorite local ingredients to work with?
I love to forage wild onions in the springtime and use them in everything. Wild persimmons in the fall are always a treat too. I also love to work with venison, my best friend Amanda (who you know of course!)'s husband is an avid hunter so he is always a reliable source for fresh game meat.
-Tell us about one life changing meal you experienced.
I recently filmed an episode for the BBC/Netflix show Hairy Bikers, which is a food travel show hosted by two very charming Englishmen who go on motorcycle road-trips around the world meeting, eating and cooking with people. My friends and fellow Cherokee chefs Bradley Dry and Taylor Barton and I made a meal of traditional Cherokee foods for them and talked about our culture and history on the banks of a beautiful clear creek on Bradley's family land. It was a lot of hard work but a very rewarding and meaningful experience.
-Favorite kitchen tool?
I couldn't live without my cast iron skillets!
-If some of my readers want to start cooking more gourmet meals, what kind of dishes would you recommend they start with?
I'm a big fan of Bon Appétit Magazine for inspiration when it comes to kind of entry-level dishes with interesting ingredients. They always have really interesting fun recipes that are simple to prepare, with ingredients that might be unfamiliar but are easy to source. It's also a good exercise to take a dish that you already make regularly and are comfortable with, and find a way to "gourmet" it up by maybe introducing a bunch of fresh herbs, or trying to make a sauce from scratch instead of buying it.
-When you travel, what are your favorite types of cuisine to try?
I always ask the locals and find out where they eat! I like to find the little neighborhood spots that may not be getting national attention, but that have been a staple in the community for years and have perfected what they do.
-Who do you look up to in your career?
There are all kind of celebrity chefs who are cool and talented and very successful, BUT the people who really inspire me are the locals who I see giving everything they've got to create something of their own. I've been friends with Philip and Danielle Phillips (Lone Wolf/Chicken & the Wolf) since we were all young and wild and figuring life out, and now they have built this successful business by working hard, being smart and sticking to their own standards of quality, AND balancing a family on top of it all! I am continually inspired by and proud of everything they have and continue to accomplish.
-What’s next for Chef Nico?
I plan to continue to create new and fun dishes to keep our regulars at Duet coming back, for sure! We have all kinds of special events- the first of which was our FIRST BIRTHDAY PARTY which we celebrated with a shrimp boil and live music on our patio.
I am also part of an incredible team working hard on a new event for Tulsa, the Oklahoma Tribal Celebration! This will be a huge festival at the Gathering Place in November to celebrate the music, dance, fashion, art, food and culture of all the tribes in our region, coinciding with Native American Heritage Month. I am leading the cuisine aspect of the event, which will include special menus of indigenous inspired foods at the restaurants and food truck at the Gathering Place, as well as Native food vendors. So be on the lookout for more info on that!