Chef of the Year: Nick Goellner of The Antler Room
There are chefs who can pinpoint the exact moment when they fell in love with cooking, and the story is tinged with romance. Nick Goellner doesn’t have one of those stories. He’s not whimsical about his culinary career, and he didn't grow up dreaming of becoming an acclaimed chef.
The Stillwell, Kan. native went to Rockhurst High School, then on to the University of Kansas, where he majored in political science. Upon graduation, he took an internship as a congressional aide in Topeka, but quickly became disillusioned with the wheel of politics. His sister, Natasha -- the pastry chef behind Natasha’s Mulberry & Mott and Cirque du Sucre -- had attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and encouraged Nick to enroll. His parents, not wanting him to waste his time in a field that didn’t make him happy, were supportive of his move.
It wasn’t until age 24, when Nick had graduated culinary school and landed in a professional kitchen on The World cruise ship (A residential mega yacht where an ocean “condo” can set you back $7.3 million.) where he felt like he had found his calling.
“I love the culture in kitchens so much,” he says. “I like that it's a meritocracy. I like that at the end of the day, you know what you've made and you know what you've done, and there's no bullshit. It's not as easy to coast – if you want to work in nice restaurants, you have to be able to do the job. You can't talk your way around it, and there's no wiggle room – you either did it right or wrong.”
Today, Nick is 34. In the last decade, he’s filled his resume with positions in prestigious kitchens around the world: after The World, he went to Allegretti in NYC; then to the Robert Morris Inn on the Chesapeake Bay; then The Rieger in Kansas City; then the Michelin-starred Boulevard in San Francisco and, in April 2015, he went to the renowned Noma in Copenhagen – one of the world’s most celebrated restaurants from iconic chef René Redzepi.
Everyone asks Nick about Noma. Even to those not particularly well-versed in the world of fine dining, the name echoes with a powerful mystique. But when Nick landed a four-month internship at the restaurant that had consistently been named the best in the world by Restaurant Magazine, it wasn’t the celebrity that drew him in.
“I honestly saw it to put myself in a situation that was completely unfamiliar,” he says. “I wanted to have a completely foreign experience, and I've always found that I learn the most when I put myself in situations I'm not prepared for.”
Almost everything about the way Noma was run, Nick says, was different from anything he’d seen before. And while every restaurant tends to have a culture of hard work and self-sacrifice, what he witnessed at Noma was intense: “From the moment people arrive until the moment they leave, they are working as hard as possible, nonstop, and they do it because they believe in the mission of the restaurant. It left a big mark on the way I see kitchens and how I think they should be run. It put everything in perspective, too: How are you really supposed to know what your culture should be like as a restauranteur at any different level unless you've seen the bottom and the top?”
Nick opened The Antler Room with his wife, Leslie, in October 2016. The Quality Hill eatery is not meant to give Noma a run for its money. It can be hard to describe the restaurant: there are no white tablecloths, but it is fine dining. Jeans are OK, but the vibe isn’t so much casual as it is neighborhood-y. The menu changes frequently and is eclectic, designed in groups of small plates: there’s baby squid with pili pili and chicharrones, beef tongue with enoki mushrooms and a range of housemade pastas.
“We don't have a discernable creative process that I know of,” Nick says. “Things just happen. Half of the time, it starts with an ingredient, and the other half, it starts with someone's idea.”
The “we” Nick is referring to is him and his two sous chefs, Nick Chiaro and Andrew Heimberger. Getting credit for being “Chef of the Year,” he says, isn’t entirely fair: at The Antler Room, the menu is a truly collaborative effort. Chiaro and Heimberger have full creative license, and Nick sees them as equal partners when it comes to designing dishes.
Today, Nick describes himself as a “nerd chef,” and is vocal about not being part of the “bro-chef” culture. He says his entire team embraces a more intellectual aesthetic.
“I use that term to explain that we are all really passionate about absorbing new information,” he says. “In the morning when we're prepping, we have podcasts or lectures playing, and that's because we all have a real fascination with things we don't know yet.” These podcasts aren’t necessarily about food, either -- they’re on history and politics, for the most part. “I guess you could say we're more a kitchen of indoor kids than outdoor kids.”
It also wouldn’t be fair, Nick says, to talk about The Antler Room without recognizing Leslie. She and Nick met while they were both working at The Rieger in 2010, and they’ve each made restaurants their careers – he in the back of the house, she in the front. While Nick was staging at Noma, Leslie was writing the business plan for the restaurant. At The Antler Room, she is the front-of-house manager, bookkeeper, bar manager and whatever else she needs to be on any given night.
“I lean on her knowledge and skill,” Nick says. “If I had to open a restaurant without her, I would be in way over my head.”
Working with his wife, he admits, can be challenging – but then again, he reasons, the restaurant industry isn’t always easy, and he and Leslie have worked in the same restaurants on and off throughout their careers. Besides, he says, there is no one he trusts more: They share the same vision – one for a comfortable restaurant, where each bite of food makes you want to stay a little longer.
“My favorite part of the day is the end,” Nick says, “when I can think back to what we've made happen together.”
For more information visit theantlerroomkc.com.
See our full review of The Antler Room at 435mag.com/December-2016/Antler-Room-Kansas-City.
See how The Antler Room snagged the number one spot for 2017's top 11 new restaurants at 435mag.com/December-2017/Kansas-Citys-Top-11-New-Restaurants.