In the past few years Jay Villani’s Local 188 has transformed from the little Bohemian Dive it was on 188 State Street in the early 2000s, into one of Portland’s hotspots. Much of this is in due part to the chef de cuisine of Local 188, Nicholas Nappi. With a very refined palate, innovative ideas, and a very clear passion for cooking, the menu has been changing, and is now expected to constantly change. Coming from humble beginnings at an Old Country Buffet, Chef Nappi did not attend culinary school but instead learned the basics from an unexpected place. Who knew that Old Country Buffet would teach their staff how to make rouxs, and proper rouxs mind you, as well as other vital skill-sets that any professional chef nowadays need to have!
If you’ve ever been into Local 188 on a busy Friday or Saturday night, there’s really no way you could miss Chef Nappi. He expedites on these evenings, and his voice certainly carries throughout the majority of the dining room and lounge area. Commanding respect in the kitchen, but also incredibly friendly to his back-of-the-house team, Nicholas understands the importance of a strong relationship between back-of-the-house workers. Much like Jay, he also agrees with the notion that education in any kitchen is imperative. I can’t tell you how many times he’s sworn to me, that Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry, taught him so much, and made him think in an entirely different way about the art of cooking. For a chef to be able to take so much from another chef, and not only learn, but apply these skill-sets, is at the very least, impressive. In addition to his openness to new techniques, it would only make sense that Chef Nappi also has been intrigued by the original work done at El Bulli and Alinea. Grant Achatz, is currently providing Chef Nappi with a lot of inspiration, with his sensitive plating techniques, use of sous-vide and emulsions, and his, what some might claim to be, “overly”-conceptual dishes. While the Chef might not be hanging strips of bacon from wires at the moment, he is taking the root of what Grant practices, to heart, while maintaining his own voice. This past August, yes, I know, quite sometime ago, I got the chance to sit down with Nicholas– who also doubles as my superior and mentor– to chat about where his passion stemmed from, his aspirations, and what inspires him in the kitchen.
On that late August day, when I was still working two jobs, we both took a moment out of our busy schedules to dabble in a game of tennis, which, for quite sometime, seemed to be a joke between the two of us. But there we were, in our tennis attire- my whites, and his mismatches, at Deering Oaks, trying to play a good game of tennis. That didn’t happen unfortunately, despite the fact that I had just spent a month being a counselor at a tennis camp in New Hampshire. Chef Nappi was truly aggravated by my lack of finesse and energy that I had brought to the courts those days. So what did we do instead? Well, we sat, and talked, and he smoked a cigarette. It was that day that I learned that his grandfather is by far his biggest role model. He spoke fondly of him, relaying anecdotes, and explaining that it was his grandfather who actually got him into tennis. The subjects definitely flew around, neither of us staying on the same topic for too long. He spoke of his early days at Local, working lunch with the infamous Trent, while maintaining night shifts with Jay and the crew, and a whole other job at a friend’s restaurant, which basically required him to sleep behind the bar in order to work all 4 shifts he had up there. Shortly after those were over, he’d speed down to Portland to make it into Local in time for prep.
Then came the talk about when Jay first let Chef Nappi do the ordering– which, according to Nicholas was quite unexpected. It seems, from what I gathered, and from Nicholas has said, that it was from then on, which he acquired a considerable amount more of responsibility. If you look at what Chef Nappi has accomplished, it’s actually both humbling and impressive. I know you’ve heard the standard rags to riches story, countless times in your day, but come on, Old Country Buffet, to being chef de cuisine at Local 188, without and formal culinary education? It’s impressive, if I do say so myself.
Chef Nappi has a critical eye for plate design, and while it’s true that most chefs possess this trait, it’s especially true for him. He’s quite meticulous about every last detail on plates, from the gels that he used quite recently on a rather delectable razor clam tapas special, to the way his scallops are placed atop of the sour orange aioli, and then adorned by the cute (though he might beg to differ) dehydrated kalamata olives. He’s archived many of the plates that he’s sent out to diners, on his smart-phone, so that he can “keep track” of what he’s done, and what he wants to do. He recognizes that in order for a restaurant to remain interesting, new things need to be developed constantly, whether it involves front or back of the house. Chef Nappi is all about the unexpected, which, I suppose is appropriate of course. It’s clear that Chef Nappi has quite the future ahead of him. Maybe some James Beard noms are in his future? I wouldn’t be surprised.