Being a Tallahassee native, I have to say I feel a sense of pride when I hear a story about a local kid making it big. Normally, people who make it to the top flee their hometown as soon as possible. Breaking that trend is 29 year old, Chef Nik DelMonego. He was named the Executive Chef of Hotel Duval in early May of this year, meaning he oversees LeRoc Bistro, Shula’s 347 Grill, Level 8’s tapas menu, and the Banquet team.
With no technical culinary training, Chef DelMonego has used his life-long passion for food as a way to climb from a cashier at Golden Corral, through the station ranks of a line cook, and finally to being the man in charge. Taking time out of his hectic schedule, Chef DelMonego sits down with Spoon to talk about his early beginnings in the world of food, his transition into being a serious chef, and the responsibilities in his new executive position.
SPOON: So, where did you go after your cashier days at Golden Corral?
DELMONEGO: After Golden Corral, I delivered pizzas for Hungry Howies while I was still in school. My first real restaurant job came after I graduated. It was at Harry’s when they first opened here. So I went through opening training and they had me start on the fryer station. I came home every night wearing fry batter caked onto my shirt.
SPOON: When was the moment you realized you wanted to be a chef?
DELMONEGO: I always kinda knew. I loved cooking. My second year of college, I got a job at my friend’s dad’s catering company. Just being able to make my own food there and being able to have free reign re-sparked that joy. Also, my grandfather owned a restaurant, Dee’s Oyster Bar, in Panama City. I remember going there as a kid and hanging out behind the scene. I would play in the kitchen, have the cooks make me whatever I wanted, and even shuck oysters every now and then. It was my favorite place to be.
SPOON: What culinary school did you attend?
DELMONEGO: Umm, none actually. I took three years of culinary arts at Leon High School. Mrs. Watson was my teacher, and I loved her. She pushed me to be as creative as I could be and encouraged me to reach for bigger and better things. I got some sort of restaurant association certification at the end of those three years but by no means am I classically trained. No CIA for this guy. (Culinary Institute of Arts)
SPOON: You were just promoted to Executive Chef earlier this year. How does this title affect the way you work?
DELMONEGO: I’ve always tried to be the hardest worker in the kitchen. Whether it was being on the grill or on expo, I’ve always tried to lead by example. I’m not the most vocal person. I’m not going to sit there and scream and yell but if someone is doing something wrong, I’m going to go show them how it needs to be done and expect them to replicate the same behavior. In my world, repeating mistakes means you’re not taking the time to learn. I demand the most of myself, so I expect everyone else to demand the most of themselves as well.
SPOON: How is being the Executive Chef different than any previous position you’ve held?
DELMONEGO: Paperwork, lots and lots and lots of paperwork. Everybody thinks by watching Chopped and similar shows that as an executive chef you’re just cooking and having fun all the time. I would say 60% of my time is going to meetings, coding invoices, placing orders, and discussing menu changes. It gets to the point where you’re more of a manager than an actual cook, yet you still have to find time to go out there and have fun. You have to make some time to get dirty every now and then.
SPOON: What is it about Shula’s and Hotel Duval that made you want to stick around?
DELMONEGO: I’ve been here since day one. I remember standing in line for the job fair, as it wrapped around the building. I knew that something like this hadn’t been done in Tallahassee before and being able to be a part of it from the ground up has been pretty cool. They’ve always given me opportunities and been loyal to me. A lot of my coworkers have been here since day one too. Arthur, the GM of Shula’s, moved up from Server. The GM of the hotel, Johnny, started as the Assistant Manager of Shula’s and moved up. The countless opportunities for promotions have made all the hard work pay off.
SPOON: Can you name a dish you make that stands out in your mind as your favorite or the one you’re most proud of?
DELMONEGO: I always enjoy going back to my roots. I love cooking any home-comfort food and any time I’m cooking for the family. I’m from a big family, so we always did Sunday dinner. Although, my favorite dish I make would have to be New-Mexican Style Enchiladas with Hatched Green Peppers…well red or green peppers, it really doesn’t matter. It’s my favorite either way.
SPOON: What is your ultimate goal as a chef?
DELMONEGO: Keep climbing the ladder. About a year ago, I was on the verge of going back to school and trying to find something else to do and then this opportunity fell into my lap, so who knows? Bigger and brighter things for sure, but at the same time I like this place and I could see myself here in 5 years. Maybe Jacksonville next? To be honest, wherever the world takes me is where I’ll go.