Nick Vella grew up in Rolla, Missouri, but he first made a name for himself in the culinary world in New Orleans. After culinary school in Baton Rouge, Vella worked at a few restaurants before making the jump to the Big Easy.
Vella worked under some of the most acclaimed chefs in New Orleans and helped open several restaurants. With his brother in Kansas City and his parents in Iowa about to retire, though, he wanted to be closer to family. Vella connected with chef Joe West last spring, who was then preparing to open The Savoy at 21c. Vella came on board as sous chef and helped open the restaurant, which Feast named one of the best new restaurants of 2018. His influences are varied; he was classically trained, but got an education in Cajun and Creole cuisine in Baton Rouge, plus he spent summers as a kid in Malta, where both of his parents are from, watching his grandmother cook.
We caught up with Vella after his buzzy pop-up dinner at Lucky Boys to chat about his Maltese roots, working with West and knowing where your food comes from.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? I guess really high-quality milk; I’ve focused a lot on cheesemaking. At my pop up at Lucky Boys, I made some sheep's milk ricotta. In Louisiana, sheep and goats are really, really hard to make money off of because they get footrot because it’s so humid down there. So up here I got to use some really nice sheep’s milk. Or maybe just really good semolina – single-origin, milled semolina for pasta.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique/gadget? It's not necessarily a secret, but just using dashi [a Japanese stock base made with dried kombu and bonito flakes] in general. That’s one thing I learned [working] at a ramen restaurant. If it’s used correctly in a sauce or as like a deglazing liquid, [you can] use it to fortify any sauce or anything like that. Especially when it’s a western-style sauce, it’s kind of unnoticed but it can add a lot of complexity and turn say, two ingredients together that are 2 + 2 = 4, you add dashi and it becomes like, a 9.
What's your perfect day of eating in Kansas City? I have not had that much time [in Kansas City yet]. But so far, probably breakfast would be biscuits and gravy at Happy Gillis. Lunch probably tacos at any of the smaller taquerias that make their own tortillas in KCK. Dinner would be at The Antler Room, for sure – just with maybe like five people and order the whole menu and share it.
Who are some Kansas City chefs you admire at the moment? Definitely Nick [Goellner] over at Antler Room. I’ve met him a few times, and as a person, he seems great, and also I connect with the way he cooks. I see a lot of similarities in what he does and the things I like.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? The new trend in New Orleans was all of the executive sous [chefs] of all these big-name chefs, all these people who were sous at really high-end fine-dining restaurants had [small restaurants] with a very specific focus, small menu, counter service-style, super casual. Basically building a restaurant space with as little money as possible and making it kitschy, but having a unified idea.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? Usually like a go-to would be a pasta. Like if I’m trying to be super cheap, [I'll do] some spaghetti with any cured pork, some mushrooms and some greens and drop an egg in it carbonara-style, olive oil, cheese. It’s kind of a one-dish meal.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Probably manicotti. Ricotta-stuffed shells is something my mom has always done for birthdays, Christmas. It’s a very specific dish. Just red sauce and ricotta-stuffed shells.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? I would say definitely, if possible, know who you’re buying from. For me, that makes cooking so much more enjoyable, when I know who produced it and put the time in, and it’s not a commodity good. It’s something that has been cared for, and that care goes on to you. You can keep it simple, but I think trying to know some producers and getting more in touch with the community. To continue that dialogue between producer and consumer gives people even more opportunity to produce things locally.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? I just worked on a dish, it’s our seasonal pasta at The Savoy. It’s a spaghetti verde: I used a chlorophyll extract to make the spaghetti as green as I possibly could, then a green-onion pesto which I did a little bit differently. Instead of using olive oil, I used heavy cream in the blender to blend it super smooth, and it's just richer for winter. It's not a super light pasta. [Then] real quick blanched broccoli, threw some spinach in, and pistachio pesto. So I basically found everything green that’s almost in season – broccoli’s not quite there – and then we made a housemade ricotta salata that we marinate with a little bit of lemon. I think that’s most exciting dish I've done in a minute.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? Specifically for that one, I knew it was gonna be a pasta. I told chef [West], I wanna change our pasta primavera. He gives all of the sous [chefs] here creative [opportunities] – if we wanna put something on the menu, once it’s done we ask him, "What do you think about it?" And he might tweak it. So I wanted to change the pasta, and I want to make a dish that’s 100 percent green, and not off or drab green – just as bright as it could possibly be. That was the idea, then making something taste good with that, and going through: Spaghetti’s a good pasta for that, it’ll held the color well. And then bounced some ideas back and forth with the other sous chefs. Then it was a couple of days of thinking about it, getting the product in and working on it. I made the pasta first to see how to make it as green as I possibly could. After all that thinking, it’s just doing it. It kind of comes together for me last minute a lot. [At first,] I wasn’t gonna do a cream pesto, it wasn’t gonna be a green-onion pesto, it was gonna be a mint pesto. And then I was thinking, onions are going to be coming in season. When it all came together, it was last minute. It had a plan, but the final dish was a little bit different than what I thought about in the beginning.
What are your future plans? I’m honestly in a very open time. I don’t have any specific goals for opening up anything for myself. I think I’m just going to see what opportunities happen. I have a house in New Orleans, so that’s always gonna be kind of a home. I definitely am doing pop ups and getting my own name out there as much as possible, and meeting as many people [as I can] and just see what happens. I don’t want to force anything.
The Savoy at 21c Hotel, 219 W. Ninth St., Kansas City, Missouri, 816.443.4260, thesavoykc.com