Often found tweeting about his daily culinary exploits, Straw Hat restaurant’s executive chef might have small-town roots, but exudes big-city style in creating some of the most talked-about gourmet experiences on Anguilla. We catch up with Nick Dellinger as he shares his love of island life, his green thumb and passion for trying new, exciting things in the kitchen.
Where are you from?
Southern Illinois. I grew up between there and Iowa. It’s kind of a rural, country area.
Where did you train?
I went to a community college in S. Illinois, but cooking started as a kid. My maternal grandparents had a restaurant, and my paternal grandmother was just Italian [laughs]. She loved to cook. We always had big family dinners. My grandmother’s restaurant was a little country diner about two hours away. I used to spend my summers there, on the farm. When I was about 13, my mom and her husband opened a restaurant in Iowa. It was called Porky’s Diner. There were pork tenderloin sandwiches, classic cars and motorcycles. It was breakfast, lunch and dinner 6 days a week.
What did you do there?
I was the ‘soda jerk’. I would get the sodas, make all the malts, wash dishes…just running around doing whatever. I ultimately learned how to do everything. I started on a fryer in the kitchen and would help the guys with their tickets, or plating. That’s when I knew I wanted to do it professionally. Later, I moved to Portland, Oregon and worked there for 5 years.
Portland has a nice restaurant scene, doesn’t it?
Portland is awesome! The people are very progressive, very health-, and earth-conscious. I later got recruited and moved to Las Vegas. That move was a big shock, but I knew it would be good for my career.
When was this?
About 4 years ago. I started at Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand – a Michael Mina restaurant. Then I moved to American Fish [another Mina restaurant] at the Aria Hotel, where I was executive sous chef. There were four different methods of cooking fish. It was really cool and lots of fun.
So how did you end up here?
Craigslist! I came here at the end of 2011, at the start of the high-season. I wanted to leave Las Vegas. It was really loud, everyone was very flashy. I’m not very flashy; I’m a small town guy. I wanted to go back into a smaller restaurant, like the one in Portland. This was a small Italian restaurant, where we only served lunch and dinner. Farmers would bring us greens grown down the street. Even here, we’ll have fishermen pull their boats up and bring us fish right out of the sea.
Did you know about Anguilla before?
I didn’t. I was looking on Manhattan’s craigslist and saw an ad for an executive chef at Koal Keel restaurant in Anguilla. I thought, “Why not?” I applied and got the job. I moved here to Straw Hat after a few months. I love Anguilla; it’s very fun for me. When we closed in September and October, the staff asked if was planning to go home. I thought, “Vacation in Illinois? In September? No. I think I’m gonna stay here.” I built the garden, cleaned the kitchen and sat on the beach. For me, this is a vacation.
Tell me about the garden
I had a hard time getting greens consistently. With help from a friend, we got a backhoe, outlined the area, and started planting. We have arugula, mustard lettuce, okra, cucumber, radishes, basil, hot peppers, lemongrass, dill, thyme, and cilantro. Now, every night before service, I’ll pick the tiniest bit of arugula or a flowering bud of cilantro and I use that to garnish my dishes. It’s really fresh and sexy.
How has being in Anguilla influenced your cooking?
I’ve always liked local cuisine. Some of my staff has been here for 10 years; they know exactly what local cuisine is. I learn from them as much as they learn from me. I like to use everything we have available here. We use a lot of plantain, for example, so I’ll take all the trimmings, and I’ll make a plantain puree with a scallop dish.
What time of year do you look forward to most for ingredients?
I would say every season. Last year I got my first sour-sop, and I thought “what am I going to do with this?” We did scallops with pickled sour-sop. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just having fun. Being a chef is great; you don’t have to know what you’re doing. You know methods, but cooking is a blank canvas. It’s fun to take something people are used to and use it differently.
Any signature dishes?
I really like making gnocchi, and pasta…anything Italian, just because that’s my roots. I remember rolling gnocchi when I was 8 years old. My favourite thing to cook, though, is fish. I love to run a sauté station and just cook fish all night.
Do you cook at home?
Why? I’m single; I just take food home from here. If I have someone at home to cook for, I will. Right now, on my day off, I’ll go get a burger and I sleep.
When you eat out, where do you go?
My favourite is Dolce Vita in Sandy Ground and Sand Bar next door to that. Also Andy’s in The Valley.
Must-have ingredient in the kitchen?
Sherry vinegar. A touch of sherry vinegar to almost anything, really, can make it pop.
Must-have kitchen tool?
Spoons! My grandma gave me two spoons from when I was a kid and they follow me everywhere. If you send me somewhere to cook, that’s what I’m packing.
Anything else you’re passionate about?
I love gardening. I also really like to build things. I love woodwork. One thing I want to learn is glass-blowing. I would love one day to blow all the wine decanters and water carafes for a small restaurant. It would be cool to say “Not only did I grow the food in the garden, but I also cooked it and blew the glass used to pour your wine.”
Any chefs you admire?
Eric Suniga, the executive chef at Culinary Dropout in Las Vegas. There’s also Andrew Garrett in Portland. He has his own brand of hot sauce called NW Elixirs. I remember helping him make the very first batch. Also Jude Messenger, a friend from New Zealand. ‘Simple, but nice’ is his favourite thing to say. It’s written on the inside of one of my recipe books. Food doesn’t have to be complex; it can be great if you keep it simple. Let the flavours do what they’re supposed to do…let the fish be the fish.
The first guy who really taught me was a Danish master chef. I was 19 years old, in the culinary program at Rend Lake College, looking to learn. After a day of being there his sous chef quit and he looks at me and said “You’re up.” I put school on hold for that year and the next six months he taught me everything. He taught me recipes that I still use in the kitchen sometimes.
He encouraged me to be super creative and bend the rules with food. It’s not fun if you’re not trying something new. Tonight, I’m making curried cauliflower gnocchi.
Every done that before?
No. It’s on special. We have some local mahi, some mustard greens from the garden, golden raisins and capers. I think it will be nice. I keep telling my guys to raise the bar; let’s show off, show them what we can do. I have some great talent here. I’ll walk around saying “Let’s see some sexy food, man!” Now they’re all excited and saying the same thing. It’s fun, we have a great time.
Tell me something most people don’t know about you?
I’m really open; I don’t have a lot of hidden things. I like country music – I grew up in southern Illinois, that’s all my grandparents would listen to. I also like to sew. [laughs]
Country music and sewing? That might hurt your reputation.
I don’t have a rep! [laughs hysterically] I am who I am. Print it if you want. I’m an open book.