Every good chef has to start somewhere, usually at the lower end of the food service totem pole. For Nick O'Leary of Coup d'Etat, Borough, and Parlour, that meant working as a 15-year-old busboy at a truck stop near his family's Denmark, Wisconsin farm. See also: Uptown's Coup d'Etat is love at first bite
Where others might have thrown in the dish rag, O'Leary persisted, first working as a server at a fine-dining restaurant in Milwaukee while pursuing a computer programming degree. But Milwaukee, known for its city-wide functional and not-so-functional alcoholism, eventually wore on the young chef, who packed his bags and headed to Minneapolis to attend culinary school.
After graduating, O'Leary landed a job at Saffron with chef Sameh Wadi, which led to an appearance on Food Network's Iron Chef. Upon leaving Saffron, he jumped from Hotel Minneapolis to Travail, where he met Tyler Shipton. In January 2013, the duo combined forces and opened Borough & Parlour in the North Loop.
Instead of sitting back and reveling in the fruits of their wildly successful labors, the two took advantage of the confidence boost, opening Coup d'Etat, their second collective culinary effort, in Uptown earlier this year.
O'Leary is one of six chefs set to participate in this year's Iron Fork competition. In anticipation of the event, Hot Dish chatted with O'Leary about his culinary roots, his experience on Iron Chef, and his dislike for happy hour.
Hot Dish: So your first food industry job was at a truck stop restaurant in your hometown. How did you end up there? O'Leary: My mom made me get a job. She was sick of me sitting around the house doing nothing.
Did you work on your family's farm at all?
I did. It was whatever they wanted me to do. Feeding the baby calves, cleaning up shit, bringing the cows in.
Is the farm still there?
The farm is, but it's not active. We sold off all the cattle and my parents just live on it. It's second generation for my dad's side, so it's a hard piece to get rid of. I'd like to buy it with my sister or my brother and keep it, because it's fun to go home to. Or maybe someday open up a restaurant in Green Bay and farm all the food off of it. It's just ten minutes south [of Green Bay.]
So moving to Milwaukee for school wasn't a huge jump for you?
It was not. It's like an hour away. Just far enough away to get in trouble and not get caught.
When you moved there, was your intention to work at a restaurant or was that just a side gig while you got your degree in computer programming?
It was just a side thing. It just kind of happened because I had some good friends working at this crappy restaurant and they insisted that I get a job there so I could hang out with them, and I did. It ended up just becoming very natural for me. Back then, it was quick cash, fun, cool people, hanging out, and I just had the right mentality to handle it... that ability to react and just go with the flow of things.
How did you transition from serving to cooking?
It started at the next job I had, it was called the Milwaukee Athletic Club. It was this pretty swanky country club and they had a restaurant, like a full-service restaurant, so it was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I got a job there and there were real cooks. It was kind of old school French cooking. It was really interesting to me and I found myself spending a lot of the time I had free just kind of hanging out in the expo line watching these guys do what they were doing and bugging them. I was an obnoxious server that asked questions about everything all the time. It appealed to me. I had my eyes on it.
It just clicked?
It clicked. It was another way to get out of Milwaukee. In the long run, or in hind-sight, I think it was the right fit for me.
Why did you leave Milwaukee?
Eh, too much fun. Partying, drugs, wasn't going anywhere. I had a lot of friends that were all in a close-knit circle and we were headed down the same dark road and we decided to all bounce and pick different parts of the country to pursue our lives and stay out of trouble with one another... even though we still find it wherever we go.
What was your experience like working with Sameh Wadi on Iron Chef?
It was a once in a lifetime experience. Hanging out with the big dogs in New York was fun. We spent about a week out there and we were out there a couple weeks previous for another show we were doing with Sameh. It was fun to go to New York twice in six weeks for all this stuff. It was intense getting ourselves prepared for it -- trying to make ourselves calm in that hour time limit situation and being able to adapt to any problems.
What was the training process like?
We would go to Saffron after working our normal shifts. We'd run kind of a 50-minute show by ourselves with a timer running and create a five course tasting menu.
Coup d'Etat just went through a seasonal menu change. What's your process for creating new menus?
I usually decide on a protein first and kind of go from there. Fall and winter are the easiest for me. I call it the puree season. I'll take turnips and rutabagas and parsnips, or whatever and just puree them and create a dish around these rich, fatty flavors and fun hues and dark spices.
So usually I'll just get a protein down and take a couple ideas [from] classical combinations of flavors and take a piece of paper, draw ideas beneath it, and slowly but surely erase things that aren't working together. You get a dish and your ingredients and you decide on what technique you want to use for the ingredients. You go from there, run it as a special for a few days, see how it's taken by the people, and if it's working, it's working.
What do you make at home?
[My girlfriend] is a healthier eater. She does a lot of running and she's a yoga instructor. We don't use butter or cream or anything like that when we're cooking at home. It's a lot of vegetables and meat and protein. She doesn't even like to use any kind of oil, so she's very healthy and it's kind of a nice way to keep my mind fresh with different kinds of cooking. I like to add butter to everything.
You just welcomed a baby into the family on Sunday morning. Will you be cooking for her?
Yeah, I think so. It's pretty easy stuff and a lot of that baby food, you don't know what you're getting. Even if I've been adding a lot of butter or fat or salt to my food over the years, I've always cooked for myself and I think using whole foods is a great foundation to go with. At least you know what you're getting instead of buying processed, already prepared things.
What do you think people should know before they pursue working in the food industry?
I think because of TV these days and cooking competitions, they see the bright lights and the fun side of what the industry really is. Whenever anybody comes to me as a future culinary student, they ask what school they should go to and I always tell them that they should avoid any professional culinary school except for a few on the east and west coasts -- there, you will learn a few things.
I tell them to borrow $10,000 from their parents and go work at a really nice restaurant for a year for free. And then you owe the whole 10 grand to your parents. You're not going to pay some business $60,000 for some education that basically any chef will tell you you have to beat out of the kids first before training them to do anything the right way. It's just a big scam if you ask me. [page] Did you graduate from culinary school?
I did. I went to Le Cordon Bleu and I'm still paying off my loans. Back then, it was $40,000, now it's 60. These kids come out of culinary school worthless, arrogant, and the best they're going to do is make $10 an hour, unless they choose to go to Cub Foods and be a baker there or land some sort of corporate position where they're going to get benefits. But overall, you're going to make $12-$14 for three to eight years of your life, trying to pay off 60 grand.
How did things work out for you after culinary school?
My first cooking job was at Palomino and then I landed a gig out in Stillwater with some nice people at a wine bar and spent almost three years out there and then I was growing tired of that and my opportunity came when... a friend informed me that Sameh needed a sous chef over at Saffron. I went and applied and met with him and we chatted and hit if off. I took the job there and I think it was an $11,000 pay cut [coming from the wine bar]. I think that's kind of where things kept pushing forward for me. It was the right place, the right people. Since then, things have been going steadily upward.
Would you say most of your education came from working at restaurants while you were in school?
Mostly just reading. I spent so much money on cookbooks the first year that I was out of school with the nice salary I was making at the wine bar. I bought just every cookbook possible. I didn't have a mentor for the longest time. I was just kind of on my own and buried in books, teaching myself flavor combinations and really basic things. I didn't even know what a truffle was when I graduated culinary school.
What's it like owning a restaurant in Uptown?
Uptown is challenging, to say the least. You expect it to be more foodie-driven and you think that people want it to be, but it's still just kind of a party area and it's hard to fulfill your expectations with a clientele that tends to steer more towards the drinking areas and the happy hour kind of scene.
They're wanting something quick, or just a different experience?
It is a different experience. There's a lot of money in Uptown, but for the most part, people tend to travel to happy hour spots. They just like some simple food. There's nothing wrong with that. The North Loop is obviously a great area for fine restaurants with more adventurous eaters.
Are you not a fan of happy hours?
Honestly, I'm not. I've never been anyone to go to happy hour. I don't base my travels upon happy hour. It's just never been part of my dining or drinking routine... not since I was back in Milwaukee and broke as fuck, going to bars for $10 all you can drink beer and a wristband.
Do you think happy hours take away from the overall dining experience?
It's a hard balance to keep people interested in your full menu while offering things that are half-off for certain periods of time during the day.
But you did end up implementing one at Coup d'Etat?
Yes, and it's been very successful in terms of a happy hour. People are definitely there enjoying our food and our drinks at half price.
You once compared happy hour lovers to gazelles.
Yep, just grazing from one place to the next.
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