Industry Profile: Nick Steen, Executive Chef and GM of Walker’s Grill

Thank you for joining us today Chef, and congratulations on being named a semifinalist for Best Chef by the James Beard Foundation. For the benefit of our audience, would you please tell us what the James Beard Foundation means to the culinary world and also about what this means to you? 

The James Beard Foundation has been around for a long time, and it is often equated with the Oscars or the Grammys of cooking. It is the biggest recognition one can receive in the culinary profession. I have dreamt about it since I was a teenager, and after my first few years in the kitchen, I realized just how far-fetched the idea was, but the notion has always stayed in the back of my mind. To put it simply, it’s been an incredible honor and a life-changing event.

You spent several years working on a historic guest ranch in Montana. Tell us about a day in the life in a ranch kitchen and how did that shape you as a chef? 

Oh yeah, great times, working at Lone Mountain Ranch definitely turned me into a better chef and it made me a better leader. When you’re trying to adapt to the ever-changing environment of food, and trying to be cutting edge, plus have fun, but also working to exceed the expectations of the guests for three meals a day seven days a week, you really find out what you are made of. Bottom-line, working at a guest ranch just makes you tough. It was cool and I got to work with amazing people. Truly a highlight of my career that taught me lessons I would not have learned anywhere else.

It’s been a year like no other in hospitality. How did you adapt and what were the silver linings? 

As a chef and as a cook, you’re constantly adapting, and everything is always changing. So on that note, you could say we were at least somewhat prepared to take a swing at the biggest curveball to ever come across our plate. The major challenge was not knowing the situation day to day, all the way down to the baseline of whether we would be open or closed. Every time the phone rang, I was thinking what would it be next? Would it be the governor’s office, or the county health department, or perhaps a wedding planner looking for a last-minute option to save a rehearsal dinner? Basically, we were constantly working off of breaking news by the hour, and sometimes the minute. Learning how to do that and keeping a positive mental attitude was one silver lining for sure. I’m most proud that we stayed healthy, one person out of thirty-five tested positive and they have recovered. Along with that we kept all our people whole, we didn’t cut pay, and we didn’t lay off a single team member.  We really put our team before everything and anything, you can’t have a great business without a great team. We understand they are our number one priority, and guest satisfaction will follow.

What skill sets do you prize the most in a co-worker? 

The most important thing to me is your attitude. No offense, but I can train anyone to cook, and I can teach my eight-year-old to wait a table. What I can’t teach someone is to have a good attitude while they do it. Attitude is definitely the only thing that really matters at the end of the day.

Tell us about your leadership style and how does that flow in the culinary program at Walker’s Grill?

For me leadership is not about lighting a fire underneath someone, but about lighting a fire inside of someone. I want everyone to have an opportunity to be exceptional, whether that is at a table, behind the bar, or in the kitchen. The basic construct of our program comes from me, but the idea is that everybody has a voice. I’ve got guys that have been working here for two months and they have a dish on the menu, and they show a lot of pride because of it. So, the idea is everybody has a little bit of ownership and that holds us all to a higher level of accountability and a higher standard.  In so many words I hate the term “boss”. Bosses suck, I aspire to be a leader. And I’ve always believed that no one works for me. They work with me, and I work with them. That’s something I picked up from some great people that I worked with in my life. I’m in the trenches every night on the line cooking food or working the front of the house. There’s a great story about two chefs who have really inspired me, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz. Grant Achatz was one of the most renowned chefs in the world at the time and he went to the French Laundry in Napa Valley. He stopped in the kitchen and politely asked a guy with a mop in his hand if he could introduce him to the Chef. The guy said, “Sure, I’m Thomas Keller, nice to meet you”. You hear that story as a young cook, and it changes how you perceive things. It taught me there is no job too big or small and I try to live by it and set the example every day.

Let’s say you can have dinner anywhere in the world at any point in time. Who is the chef? What’s on the menu? And who is at the table? 

Oh, man, I’m bringing my boy, Anthony Bourdain and we are going to France to dine with Chef Paul Bocuse… I would love to try his duck because that was his signature dish, but I would just sit down and enjoy whatever he wanted to serve at the moment. If somebody like Paul Bocuse is going to cook for me, I’m going to enjoy whatever he has on the menu… My second choice would be anywhere in the wilderness with Joe Rogan and we’re cooking a freshly harvested elk over a campfire.

And what’s coming off the wine list on this magical night?

A 1955 or 61′ Chateau Rothschild, absolutely beautiful. If you can find one, this is a truly great bottle for any occasion. After that, I’d open a couple of Trousseaus from the Jura region in France. I love old world wines and Trousseaus are a perfect complement to many of the dishes I love as well.

And on that note, we’d like to wish you, and all of our readers a Happy New Year. Thank you for joining us Nick, and cheers to you and yours in 2021!

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