What Happens When a Chef Wants to Take a Gap Year?
When Nicolas Delaroque and his family move to France next year, his chef de cuisine will temporarily take over the kitchen at his restaurant—and introduce a whole new menu.
The phrase “gap year” typically evokes the stretch of time between high school and college when some students decide to travel or work before they begin the next chapter. It’s a dreamy, freeing concept that feels increasingly elusive the further you advance in your career. Trying to find the right time to temporarily leave your job proves … well, impossible. Yet one San Francisco chef and his family have found a way to make it work without permanently abandoning their restaurant.
Nicolas Delaroque, chef and owner of Michelin-starred Nico, will be taking 2020 off with his wife, Andrea, so they can move to France for a year with their young daughter, Madeleine, immersing her in the language and spending time with Delaroque’s family.
But what to do with the restaurant? Delaroque initially reached out to a family friend, Paul Einbund—co-owner and sommelier at The Morris—to see if he would be interested in buying Nico and taking over once they left. While Einbund thought it was an amazing opportunity, he wondered what the Delaroques would do when they came back. That’s when the concept of a gap-year restaurant, "Gap Year at Nico," came to mind.
“I asked them if they would be into this idea of doing a restaurant that was a gap year, a one-year chef in residency concept,” Einbund told Food & Wine. “And the way that it worked was [Nico’s] chef de cuisine is a superstar—young, talented, everybody’s talking about how great this kid is. So we started talking about essentially giving him his own restaurant for the year, and then me and my team would oversee and make sure things were going in the right direction.”
The “chef in residency” concept is actually fairly traditional in France, according to Delaroque, as it gives young chefs a chance to prove and establish themselves. This will be the case for Nico's chef de cuisine, Jordan Guevara, who will take up the role as head chef for the first time when Nico turns into Gap Year at Nico come January 2020. He's previously worked at San Francisco's Coi and Lazy Bear, and was on Team USA for the 2019 Bocuse d'Or. Now, he's drawing on all that experience to create an entirely new menu.
“We met Jordan, and we put him through the ringer,” Einbund said. “We made him cook a lunch for me and Gavin [chef/partner at The Morris], and then we grilled him on his thoughts, his concept, his ideas, and what sort of food he wanted to do. And what he kept talking about was classic old French cookbooks. Not just the names we all know, but names that I hadn’t even heard of. Things from way back. For him, his cooking is foundational. He looks back to move forward.”
As for which cookbooks piqued his interest, Guevara has a long list of chefs and authors, including Michel Guérard, Alain Senderens, Georges Blanc, Eugénie Brazier, and Alain Ducasse. However, he made it clear that he’s not taking any recipes from them for Gap Year at Nico—rather, he's leafing through the books to find inspiration, be it a combination of ingredients or a particular sauce, and adapting those concepts through a modern lens. The end result keeps the French theme that Nico had, but with different execution and an emphasis on technique.
“While [Nicolas] obviously has great technique and incredible flavors, what Jordan does is these really complicated, intricate dishes that take so much time,” Einbund said. “We talk a lot about the food that we won’t cook at home—you wouldn’t want to cook any of this at home. It’s just insanely nuanced, but in the end, the most important thing is that it is yummy.”
Guevara explained that his new menu will include both à la carte options, as well as a six-course tasting menu. For à la carte dishes, he’s playing with the idea of larger format items, such as whole roasts—he also floated serving a take on éclade de moules, a meal traditionally eaten in southwestern France. The dish is made from collecting mussels on the beach and putting them on a wooden board with four nails in the center, arranging them hinge-side up. The finishing touch is dried pine needles—then, the whole thing is lit on fire, creating a smoky, unique flavor.
For his version at Gap Year at Nico, Guevara envisions smoking the mussels and taking them out of their shells, wrapping them individually with a piece of kohlrabi and carrot and tying them with chives. The dish is then served with a curry sauce and house-baked bread.
“[I want to] bring it up to today’s level of fine dining, but still focus on the tradition behind it,” Guevara said. “Be able to tell a story, as these guests are eating.”
Guevara plans on taking the French cookbook concept into the dining room as well. Since his inspiration is coming from the books, he’s going to have them on hand in the restaurant, and even put citations on the menu noting the book, chapter, and page that the recipe idea stemmed from—this way, guests can inquire about them if they’re curious, and the staff can show them the book.
“There are many guests that I think want to know more about what’s going on in the mind of the kitchen,” he said.
As for the beverage program? Einbund has it covered, alongside front-of-house operations. The cocktail menu will focus on old French drinks, reinvented—one drink that’s inspired him is a spritz he’s enjoyed in Paris and Normandy, made with Calvados, and orange liqueur, and sparkling wine. The wine, too, will draw from France with classic French bottles, as well as some local varieties from California. Although Gap Year at Nico won’t have as large of a program as the one at The Morris, Einbund says they will be sharing some of the exclusive and rare bottling they have with their new sister restaurant.
When 2020—and Gap Year at Nico—comes to a close, Delaroque plans on returning to Nico in 2021. He would draw on his experiences from traveling abroad, as well as what Guevara learned during his year running the restaurant. However, he noted that he and Andrea are also taking the time off to think about the future of their business, so nothing is set in stone. He views it as a chance to find fresh perspective.
“[I’m] looking forward to more time reading, dining, maybe staging, learning new things and traveling in Europe during school breaks to get more inspired and reboot my mind," he said. "I love the craft of cooking, but I think it will be a good time to take a step back and analyze where I’ve come from since we opened, what we’ve done, and take a minute and move forward in my craft with a better idea of the direction we want to take.”
Nico's final service will be held on December 31—Gap Year at Nico begins in January.