Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 14: The rise and fall of Nickel and Dime
Plus: bonus video and link to new recipe
If you’ve been following this biographical newsletter since I started (6 months ago this week!), you’ll know an important recurring image is me, an inexperienced chef, trying to figure out how not to suck so much.
Considering I started life as a cook aged 29 (geriatric by average cook standards) the fact I found it tough really shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
This week, however, we are looking back to a sweet and almost magical moment in my early kitchen career when I accidentally became a great restaurant cook.
For reasons we’ll get to, that blissful period did not last long. But, short as it was, it did something special for me that I hold dear even to this day.
It taught me both just how powerful self-worth can be and, in doing so, how simple it is to help nurture another’s self-worth as well.
It started when I joined a restaurant called Nickel and Dime in the centre of Stockholm back in January 2017. This was an entirely new restaurant from top to toe. Both the dining room and kitchen had been built from scratch in a newly refurbished building that had once been a bank (hence Nickel and Dime. Clever, right?)
When I returned a few weeks later for the first few days of pre-opening, all had changed.
There were top of the line ovens. The hi-tech work surfaces could be raised or lowered at the touch of a little button. Another little button could even cool or heat the work surfaces themselves! It took me weeks to get tired of playing with that button it was such a novelty. The best thing of all, of course, was that the appliances weren’t all held together by gaffer tape. Since appliances are universally falling apart in pro kitchens, I’d never known appliances not be covered in gaffer tape.
It was like something from Black Mirror, so impossibly “extra” I wondered what the dark and secret catch must be. I’d’ve been forgiven for thinking that working in such chef luxury meant, I dunno, having to sacrifice an increasingly large body part every service to cook for the guests alongside some fava beans and a nice Chianti…
(Wait. That actually sounds like a pretty fun dystopian story idea…)
My point is it was stunning down in that basement kitchen.
But considering who we were working for, maybe the quality of the set-up shouldn’t have been a surprise.
The owner and creative leader of the restaurant group behind Nickel & Dime was a legend of the Swedish restaurant industry. He was a big deal, and even headed up the national Swedish cooking team (yes this is a thing, they have a culinary Olympics and everything). He had won Michelin stars for one of his other restaurants and N&D was the group’s next big thing.
The Recovering Line Cook is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The concept behind the restaurant was, let us be kind and say, “ambitious”.
The menu was designed around what they called “foodtails”.
And what is a “foodtail” I hear you scream all the way over here in my little Finnish flat?
Well, the menu was all about pairing a “small plate” dish with a beautifully made cocktail.
And what do you get when you bring cocktails and small plates of food together into the same menu package?
That’s right, you get yourself a “foodtail”.
I know. It’s dreadful, really. “Foodtail”. I don’t know if they were up late working that one out one night. But after spending what must have been hundreds of thousands of Swedish Kronor on the place, “foodtails” is what they settled on.
Anyway, maybe I’m being a hard-arse. What mattered was the effort put into making these “foodtails” couldn’t have been faulted.
Really, there was no expense spared.
Let’s take the bar team for example. The owners had headhunted a verifiable who’s who of the Stockholm cocktail-making world. As far as I know, all of them were award-winning mixers and genuine artists when it came to making drinks. It was a genuine thrill to watch them work, ask them questions. They were great.
What’s more, they even agreed that the term “mixologist” was the biggest piece of wank ever invented. I liked these guys a lot.
Great cooking, as far as I’m concerned, is about giving enough of a shit to really care about details. And I don’t mean details like perfectly diced and atomically symmetrical onions or roses carved from carrots. I mean caring enough to add pickled onions and toasted nuts to salads to add a little texture and zing. I mean taking the time to fry the mince for your lasagne in batches so it browns nicely and doesn’t just boil in the pan. I mean things like adding dry herbs or sesame seeds to your panko breadcrumbs before you coat fish fillets in them to give an extra hit of flavour and complexity. Endless details such as these make great cooking.
The secret to great cooking isn’t organic ingredients, hand-massaged chickens, or expensive chef’s knives. It isn’t even “love.”
The secret to great cooking is a bit of time, some curiosity, and caring enough to make little improvements that, put together, change everything.
The bartenders at N&D did the equivalent for their drinks. I can’t list all the examples. It’d take an entire book. But one thing I did love was how they created their own “house whiskey”. It was their own specific and well-tested blend of about 5 different whiskeys that they put together to make what they insisted was the perfect one for their cocktails.
No, I don’t know if it made a difference. But I’m willing to have faith that it did. After all, they didn’t call themselves mixologists, so I want to think they weren’t bullshitters.
As for the food in the foodtails?
We cooks were lucky enough to work with incredible ingredients. Again, no expense spared.
We had live lobsters…
We had live scallops imported from Norway almost every other day.
We served them raw, sliced thinly à la minute, in a light broth made from the trimmings of the scallops themselves.
These guys were so fresh they were still twitching as the guests ate them some days.
So, the equipment, the ingredients, the bar staff couldn’t be faulted. And, to be honest, nor could the people I worked with.
My last job had been miserable. I’m not going to go into details again, you can check that story out here.
At my previous job, I’d basically been hired because I was so inexperienced. My not being as good as everyone else was factored in from the very start. It was an identity I had no choice but to manifest. It felt like my positive qualities were always subordinate to that.
It was entirely different at Nickel & Dime.
We were all new at Nickel & Dime. New restaurant, entirely new team.
Other than the head chef and his sous, we were a real mixed bunch. Some a little older, some younger. Some knowing what they were doing, some of the rest of us a little less sure.
There was, for example, the absolutely manic French kid. I refuse to admit exaggeration when I suggest watching him work was like watching a feral rabbit complete a lifetime’s worth of procreation in a single afternoon.
I couldn’t even nearly keep up with that. And, at first, I was totally jealous of how much he could get done so quickly.
And then service came along. The manic speed that served him so well during prep, simply made him fall apart once guests arrived. Tickets weren’t organised properly, he misjudged when to start plating, little things that added up. I worked alongside him in the cold section for the first few weeks of opening. The owners and head chef, not knowing any better, had decided to make me the section lead.
Somehow, my being in a position to look after this young guy, a position of responsibility, gave me the confidence to slow down and implore him to do the same. Weeks before at my previous restaurant, I didn’t even feel like I could look after myself. But having been actually trusted to look after and help someone else, having had that faith put in me, it was as though I became someone that could.
I suppose sometimes we need to be told we are something, before we are free to realise we were that thing all along.
Then I found him getting frustrated with the lobsters one day.
One of the things we aimed for with this beautiful product was to keep the claw meat intact. It’s tricky but totally possible once you have the technique down. My French friend had been cracking the limbs and removing the cooked meat with such speed, such feral vigour, that every claw came out broken.
Speed is drilled into cooks from day 1. This was my problem. I was too slow by default. I was an old dog trying hard to learn new tricks and failing. And I was jealous of young cooks like my French friend who could work so damn fast. Until, that is, I watched him try to negotiate a lobster claw. What he needed to do, I told him, was simply give himself permission to slow down. Be gentle with it, and it will come out whole every time.
He said I was wrong.
Then he slowed down and proved me right.
The gift Nickel & Dime gave me was faith. Faith that I wasn’t just old and inexperienced. I was old, inexperienced, and possibly something more. I mentioned Frick in my last newsletter. The chef at N&D who I’d been warned actively burned other cooks who weren’t doing their job well enough.
I have one memory I revisit about that guy now, six years on.
It is of him coming over to me after I’d presented to the team one of the new dishes he had added to the menu. He was admittedly a scary looking guy, Frick. No joy in his eyes, just business. A very bald head.
He simply told me, with all the enthusiasm as if he were informing me my guinea pig had died, how much he liked my presentation. That’s it. And yet I remember it even now.
Small praise, I guess, but sometimes that’s all we need in life.
What this all taught me was the importance of trusting people if you expect them to really shine. If you make someone believe they are the lowest of the low, I can’t see how they will ever be anything more than that.
That’s the way I felt at my first job in Sweden.
At N&D, even if it was by accident, I was treated like someone who could perform. And fuck me if I didn’t actually perform because of that treatment! My section ran brilliantly. My prep always got done. And I even helped some others along the way. I felt like I was finally making it as a chef.
I finally didn’t feel like a fraud.
I suppose that’s all great leadership needs to be sometimes. A few kind words and a bit of trust.
And just at the point I was starting to benefit from that, Stockholm fell out of love with “foodtails”.
The team was downsized. I was moved to another restaurant in the owner’s group. And, at the risk of being repetitive, no, my next head chef didn’t trust me at all.
And he sure did let me know about it…
Bonus Grilled Butter video from N&D 2017 featuring my dear former colleague Pat!
Nickel & Dime was too clever for its own good. Foodtails didn’t catch on, and it closed after maybe a year. I dread to think how much money was lost on that place.
But let’s end on a brighter note.
The food at N&D was incredible. I inherited a treasure trove of delicious recipes that I will likely not stop making for a long, long time. I want to share the first of them here today.
It’s the black sesame ice cream that was my favourite dessert on the menu. Click the button below to see how it’s made!