An Interview with Chef/Owner Wayne Nish, March Restaurant in New York

By Bob Bickell

"Wayne Nish and Joseph Scalice's March has always been about eccentricity. Not ostentatious eccentricity or gratuitous eccentricity but eccentricity in the best sense of the word: an invigorating irregularity of orbit." Ted Gachot, Food Arts Magazine

RR: They say that so much of life is about moments, and for you, that most significant meal in Switzerland had to be one of them.

Chef Nish: It happened in 1980 on my honeymoon. We traveled to Switzerland and I can still vividly remember the most fabulous dining experience at Fredy Girardet's legendary Restaurant Girardet. I was in the printing business at that time and things were going well for me. I was bored out of my mind, but our business was financially successful and here I sat with my new wife. It was a nine-course tasting meal. The food was unlike anything I had experienced and included my first sampling of fresh foie gras. My enthusiasm increased with each course, and at one point she looked at me and said, "This is really what you want to do, isn't it". I simply said yes. Right then and there I knew my printing days were over.

RR: I sometimes think that almost everyone secretly wants to be a chef but it's a career that is more complicated and challenging than one could ever imagine. Your experience in Switzerland makes for a great story, but the reality of actually doing something this drastic had to be a gigantic leap into the great unknown.

Chef Nish: It actually took me three years to get everything in order before I enrolled at the New York Restaurant School, and it really wasn't the gigantic leap that you suggest. My entire life prepared me for this decision and that includes my interest and exposure to exotic food growing up as a child in Queens. My mother was from Malta and my father was half Japanese and half Norwegian. I really inherited my love of cooking from my parents, and the passion was there at an early age.

RR: So in reality, Wayne Nish wanted to become a chef many years before an enlightening meal on his honeymoon.

Chef Nish: In reality, highest aspiration was to open a luncheonette in the Garment Center. My first job was in a supermarket stocking shelves and I knew that I had an affinity for food. My boss recognized it and quickly put me in the produce section. At age 19, I found myself at Cornell University actually cooking at a fraternity. So the signs were there, but I was a long way from a serious culinary career.

RR: It's important to note that you also played bass guitar in a rock band.

Chef Nish: It was the 60's and I was a big rock music fan. Fortunately, I also studied architecture and journalism. The economics of my early career in architecture never worked, so I suppose the journalism won out and by accident I ended up in the printing business.

RR: How important was your culinary school experience?

Chef Nish: It was critically important because it took me away from the corporate business world and had me thinking food literally 24-hours a day. It also led me to an apprenticeship at the Quilted Giraffe, which was an incredibly lucky break. The restaurant was awarded four stars by the New York Times so I was in the right place at the right time. I owe so much of my success to Barry Wine who owned the restaurant and was a lawyer turned self-taught chef. He believed in people like me that lacked the culinary background but had the education and the self-discipline. His philosophy was that if you had both of these things, you would figure everything out. Back in the 80's, the top chefs in New York were French and the kitchens were dominated by the classic French influence. Barry didn't care about French influence.

RR: So the Quilted Giraffe became the real catalyst that launched your career as you moved on to La Colombe d'Or that became the next major catalyst.

Chef Nish: La Colombe d'Or was a restaurant known for its French Provenšal cuisine, and again, in terms of training, I was limited in this regard. As the new executive chef, I just allowed my instincts to take over and everything fell into place. After only four months, we were awarded a 3-Star review from the Times and once again, my timing seemed to be perfect. This experience allowed me to work with a very talented general manager named Joe Scalice. Joe became a waiter at La Colombe d'Or in 1984 and had been promoted to general manager when I arrived in 1987.

RR: In 1990 you teamed up with Joe Scalice to open March, and this "dynamic duo" propelled your restaurant to the top of almost every list of New York's best restaurants, and elevated your stature to that of a world-class chef.

Chef Nish: A successful restaurant has to have someone to run the front of the house that allows the chef to concentrate on the kitchen. Joe was the perfect guy because he was so focused on developing that harmonious relationship with food and wine and his expertise was critical to our eventual success. He originally wanted to work in stage set design and like me, he changed direction and became totally committed to the restaurant business.

RR: 1990 was fifteen years ago and March has been a long-running success story in every respect. When you consider the quality and quantity of truly great New York restaurants, your success has been quite an achievement. After 15 years, what do you do to keep March at the top?

Chef Nish: That is a great question, and I must admit, it's one that is very difficult to answer. We are experiencing a new age in dining where the old French model is no longer working, and formal dining is seriously challenged. Everything is more casual, so many of us have to plan for a rather uncertain and ever-changing future.

RR: Is this a signal that March will soon become a more casual restaurant?

Chef Nish: I don't envision any major changes in what we do. At the risk of appearing arrogant, I have never cooked for the public - I have always cooked for myself. Food can be an art form and for me, it becomes a matter of personal interpretation. I have always believed that the culinary arts are closely related to everything I have done - music, architecture, and journalism. In terms of March, I have always done it the same, and I have never forgotten my roots, which is totally New York. My cuisine, which is best described as New American with Asian influences, has always been a celebration of this great City and right now, I see no reason to change anything.

RR: What is it that makes this City so special?

Chef Nish: The best minds and the best talents have congregated here to make this the top city in the Western world, and possibly the entire world. It's an economic thing as the best of everything is located here including business and industry, fashion, the arts, things like the garment district, the media, the neighborhoods, and certainly the restaurants. The diversity is amazing, and there's really no other place like it.

RR: As it relates to those best minds and best talents, is this what makes New York such a great restaurant town?

Chef Nish: I think it has something to do with it and the culinary talent is definitely here. Location plays a major role, but I have come to believe that the key thing regarding location is your proximity to an airport. We have the best produce in the world flown in on a daily basis. Certainly the concept of Fed-Ex has made it possible to secure anything you want on an overnight basis. I have also come to believe that most of everything that we need is right here in our own country. An example of this is the newfound popularity of cheese. I have tasted American cheese that rivals the very best of what one would find in Europe, and that's true of a lot of things. We have less dependence on Europe for all kinds of food-related products. There are great chefs and restaurants all over the United States, there is just a bigger concentration in New York.

RR: And what has made your career so special?

Chef Nish: It's doing something that makes me happy because I get to do what I enjoy doing. Recently we celebrated the 35th reunion of that Cornell fraternity where I began my cooking career. We did it at March and the attendance was amazing. They presented me an award of people from their class that had made it. It was all in fun, but it's just a part of the answer to your last question. It's been a fabulous journey, and of course, I still have miles to go before I sleep.

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