I first met Nicole Brisson at Jolene Mannina’s Back of the House Brawls (BOH – the basis for the new FYI TV show Late Night Chef Fight). Together with Friend Sue Mancini we made up the only all-female judges’ table ever at the BOH. Nicole Brisson and I have a lot in common. We grew up in small towns in upstate New York. We had rough childhoods. We had a love for the restaurant business from an early age. But unlike me, Nicole did something about it starting in high school.
Nicole moved out of the family home at 14 with her older sister and made her own way. Growing up in a town of 2000 (Rensselaerville, NY) not known for its culinary scene, with few role models of what a life in culinary could be, Nicole chose to enter a career based high school curriculum in culinary arts while working at a local restaurant. The owners of that restaurant encouraged, nurtured and taught her; and to this day she considers them dear friends, family and mentors. They saw the spark in her and pushed her, basically telling her in word and deed that she was better than her hometown. She was so good in her high school Vo-Tech program that she was given a scholarship to Johnson & Wales. Her exceptional performance in college gave her the opportunity to work in Italy as an apprentice and intern to powerhouse chefs too numerous to mention. She said of that opportunity, “I didn’t know it was a big deal until I got there. I just thought it would be something cool to do. I went there to work and learn and THEN I found out it was a huge deal.”
Now, after 20 years of hard work, Nicole is the Executive Chef of Carnevino, arguably the best steak house on The Strip and a jewel in the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group’s crown. The fact that she is currently, to the best of my knowledge, the only female Exec at a top tier restaurant at any major property on the Strip is remarkable. The fact that she is in her mid-thirties is astounding. When asked about this she shrugs and admits that even though the doors of culinary are open for women, it is still a men’s game at times. Socially she is quick with a smile and a laugh, with a sharp wit and sense of humor, so her transformation when working is startling. When you see Nicole in her chef whites she is controlled, calm and some would say shy, others would say stern. She has quietly and steadfastly carved out a niche for herself, not feeling the need to push, shove, scream or rant as others in her position, male and female alike, might have. She shared a story where she was “trying out” for a job and the other women were throwing elbows and trying to act tough as nails. It wasn’t her style and she basically just said, “Shut up and cook.” Nicole has allowed her work to speak for itself. She believes that the pace of the leader sets the pace of the pack and shows that through word and action. If she is calm and controlled, then her staff will be too. If she walks around acting like a coquettish goofball, then her staff will think that is ok…and it’s not. Walking through her kitchen during this interview she stopped and introduced each of her staff members, noting their progress on tasks at hand, showing appreciation for their work by that small gesture. And it was clear that she is admired by her team.
Nicole Brisson is a culinary badass.
In addition to cooking and recipe development, menu creation and running a full back of the house staff, Nicole oversees a dynamic meat program including charcuterie and dry aging and works with the best meat producers in the country to create a one of a kind dining experience (Moment of Truth – I am a charcuterie whore!). She allowed me into the on-premises meat locker at the restaurant and you can smell the beefiness even when it’s raw and cold. If you have never been in a meat locker there is a certain smell that really good meat has. I can’t describe it, but when you smell it, you know it! Having a parent who is a butcher, I marveled at the marbling and overall exceptional beauty of the beef. At an off-site location she handles the receiving and storage of the beef in the dry aging process. In addition, a recent diagnosis of celiac disease has surreptitiously steered her menu development toward gluten free options in all aspects except the pasta dishes. It is so second nature to her she doesn’t even realize she is doing it until a staff member asks, “Is this gluten free?” At that point she has to pause and consider the ingredients, and more likely than not, it is gluten free. Don’t worry though, she isn’t messing with the pastas.
Batali’s respect for her was evident
Invited to a private event at Carnevino, I was given the opportunity to watch Nicole Brisson at work, not only with her team and the clients, but with Mario Batali. She seamlessly moved from engaging conversationalist to taking charge of the staff. She took time to point out specific dishes to guests at the different stations so everyone knew there were plenty of options to choose from on the tables. Batali’s respect and gratitude for her and her work was evident when I asked him for the photo in this article. He paused from taking photos with fans and guests to make sure I had what I needed to highlight Nicole’s place in his organization. As a complete sidebar – her staff allowed to me run the fancy–schmancy slicer for the prosciutto. I am now convinced that I need one in my kitchen for the jamon de serrano I have in the fridge. Never mind my goofy face, check out the charcuterie!
Seemingly at the top of her game, I asked what was next for her. She didn’t have a ready answer for the question. Ultimately it would be opening her own place and she is confident she would have support, both financially and personally; but she isn’t ready to take that step yet. Nicole loves what she is doing and wants to continue building what she is currently working on right now. The future is bright for Nicole Brisson and I for one can’t wait to see what she does in that future.