Derek Wagner to JWU Students: ‘Happy Cooks Make Happy Food’

Nicks on Broadway chef-owner Derek Wagner speaking at JWU

Nicks on Broadway chef-owner Derek Wagner '99 speaking at JWU as a Distinguished Visiting Chef (DVC).

With his broad smile and down-to-earth enthusiasm, Derek Wagner '99 could pass for a culinary student. But this JWU alum and acclaimed chef-owner of Providence institution Nicks on Broadway has a wealth of experience — and he’s passionate about sharing it.

“You have to love this business so much it hurts,” he told a packed auditorium of JWU culinary students. “You have to be in it 100% at all times.”

Sharing his Passion for Farm-to-Table Cooking
Known for his knock-out seasonal menus and passionate advocacy for sustainable sourcing, Derek has been nominated for multiple James Beard Rising Star awards, and is an active member of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering chefs to build a better food system.

Share your food and ideas — it’s how you learn and grow as a chef.”

When he was just 24, Derek bought Nicks from its owner, Nick Sammartino, who was retiring. Roughly 14 years, one move and an expansion later, he’s turned the restaurant into one of New England’s most acclaimed culinary destinations.

Derek made 4 dishes from Nicks:

  • a creamy soup of local turnips
  • fluke crudo with pickled cranberries and mustard seed vinaigrette (pictured)
  • pork belly with carrot purée
  • a pumpkin spice cake with caramel and roasted pecans

Practical Advice for Students
As he cooked, he talked about what it was like to go from JWU grad to restaurant owner: “When I opened, it was just myself, another cook and one waiter. Everything was labor-intensive back then. It was tough to find direct sources for food or supplies.”

Guests have a right to know where their food comes from.”
Crudo with cranberries and pickled mustard seeds.
Derek’s fluke crudo with pickled cranberries + mustard seed vinaigrette. | Photo: Andrea Feldman

Since then, he’s developed strong relationships with local suppliers; the bulk of his menu comes from farmers he knows personally. “Guests have a right to know where their food comes from.”

Derek’s advice for going far in culinary:

1) Every day is a learning opportunity.
“You can’t be greedy about information. Share your food and ideas — it’s how you learn and grow as a chef. I learn so much from my cooks and wait staff every single day.”

2) Be resourceful.
“Nicks is a whole animal restaurant, which means we get whole chickens, pigs, fish and a side of beef delivered. You have to be resourceful and not waste a single ounce. We think of a use for absolutely everything. You have to if you want to stay profitable.”

3) Pay attention to your business classes.
“There’s a romantic side to this business — the communal experience of eating is very special. But never forget that it IS a business. You have to know simple math. You need to understand inventory and menu costs. If you don’t know how to cost a 700-lb side of beef down to the ounce, you’re not going to go very far.”

4) Be creative within your budget.
“Sometimes I fall in love with menu ideas that just don’t make sense once I do the math. So you have to be flexible — and you have to work within your means.”

5) Always have fun.
“At the end of the day, you have to have fun. Happy cooks make happy food. I’m a firm believer in that.”

Follow Derek on Twitter.

Topics: Interviews Sustainability Alumni Entrepreneurship