Chef Chat: Nicholas Wilkins of Ani Ramen

Ani Ramen's corporate executive chef discusses the brand's new nonprofit pop-up restaurants—Rock City Pizza and Bang Bang Chicken—and what growth is like during a pandemic.

Nicholas Wilkins, corporate executive chef at Ani Ramen. Photo courtesy of Ani Ramen

In January, British-born, long-time Jersey resident Nicholas Wilkins was hired on as corporate executive chef for Ani Ramen House. He was just coming off of several years overseeing restaurant concepts for the Asbury Park-based Smith restaurant group. Before that, he worked as chef de cuisine at NJM Top 30 Restaurant Nicholas.

Then the coronavirus lockdown happened. As it turned out, Wilkins is the kind of guy you want on your team at a time like this. Covid-19 has shunted some of Ani Ramen and Wilkins’ immediate plans for development to the sidelines, but, as Wilkins explains, both he and the restaurant group leadership have pivoted well. Concepts already in the works—Rock City Pizza and Bang Bang Chicken—became charitable initiatives and opportunities (i.e. learn how to adapt to Covid-19 now, open restaurants that are already well-prepared, and flexible, later this year).

We caught up with Wilkins, who’s sadly lost most of his native British accent but who has genuinely infectious enthusiasm for the coming projects within Ani Ramen. Even as dining in Jersey looks to remain complicated for a while, Wilkins has got us excited—because he’s excited—for what’s to come.

Table Hopping: Prior to joining Ani Ramen, you oversaw distinctive spots for the Smith Grou such as Pascal and Sabine, Porta, and Brickwall. How did you operate as a creative chef within such strong point-of-view concepts?
Nick Wilkins: It definitely keeps you on your toes when you’re working inside of a company that has three separate brands. One minute you’re in the mode of French fine dining, the next is coastal Neapolitan cuisine, next it’s American comfort food. It was exciting to take my skill set and put it into three different brands.

TH: Was it difficult to implement a particular concept with different chefs de cuisine?
NW: That really depends on how a company operates. At Smith there was a lot of collaboration. Especially with Pascal and Sabine, the chef there is Mike Bingham. I brought him on board. I’d worked with him at Restaurant Nicholas. It’s great to take someone like that and collaborate with them.

TH: Clearly you’re talented at overseeing concepts, but you were at Restaurant Nicholas for almost a decade. How did it help you cultivate your style?
NW: Being in that space and having the availability of ingredients, the freedom to be as creative as I could be, was amazing of course. It definitely helped me create my own style, which has changed over the years for sure.

When you’re a young chef, you show as much as you can on one plate. And you try to stay on the forefront and the cutting edge, especially at a top-rated restaurant in New Jersey. But it evolved as we went along. I gained more confidence in what we were doing and more confidence as myself as a chef—to the point where we were actually removing components from the plate.

TH: What does that signify, from a culinary perspective—removing components?
NW: A lot of chefs still put a lot of components on the plate—that’s a lot of places to hide. One technique doesn’t shine, there’s another to back it up. But we were dialing in these techniques until they were so on point, we were able to put less on the plate and have those few ingredients shine more. That also creates more of a focus on sourcing and local purveyors. Where I’m at now it’s about flavor. That’s what it comes down to, making a delicious plate of food.

TH: Ani Ramen is obviously a Japanese-influenced concept. Is that new territory?
NW: I’ve always had a strong interest and a strong passion for Asian ingredients and flavors. In my career, I’ve looked to Japanese, Thai, Chinese cuisine. There’s a depth to those cuisines, balances of flavor that are really just so impressive. I’ve been using elements of that, whether at Pascal and Sabine or Restaurant Nicholas, for years.

TH: Ani Ramen is also very established. Do you feel free to implement your perspective in such a polished brand?
NW: Obviously they have an established menu and everything else. But I was able to work with [executive chef] Julian [Valencia] and the team here. It’s the same principle of bouncing ideas around and doing tastings, working together as a team. I get to really take what we’re doing and fine-tune things inside of the Ani Ramen brand.

TH: You seem to like being at the helm of multiple operations.

NW: Absolutely. It’s an ongoing evolution. You evolve into this role. I’ve always said to chefs who work for me: “Enjoy your time on the line. Eventually, you’ll cook less.” When we opened the Rock City Pizza here in Jersey City, it was a nice return—working the line with the guys here, straight through the first day.

Ani Ramen founder Luck Sarabhayavanija packs a Rock City Pizza box.

TH: What can you tell us the pop-up restaurants that took over the Ani Ramen space in Jersey City?
NW: We’d been in conversations about developing Bang Bang and Rock City Pizza for some time. When Covid-19 happened, we thought “How can we pivot and give something back?” We can get staff back and at the same time be able to feed people. We had these brands that were ready to launch anyway as separate concepts. When things level out, [those concepts] will be elsewhere and this [Jersey City space] will return to Ani Ramen.

TH: What about the concepts themselves?
NW: Rock City is Detroit-style pizza, which, obviously, originated in Detroit. Sicilian immigrants basically took a high-hydration focaccia dough and made the first pizzas. It being “Motor City,” there where car plants everywhere, and they actually made the first Detroit pizzas in old oil pans—machine part pans. So you get a cross between a Sicilian and a pan pie. It grew from there and has a serious cult following. And no one’s doing it here. The main components are that high-hydration Detroit-style dough, a 24-hour ferment, which gives it really good flavor, then we source a Wisconsin brick cheese, and the Detroit pie is sauced on top.

Wilkins preparing rotisserie chickens for Bang Bang Chicken pop-up.

TH: And Bang Bang?
NW: The Bang Bang Chicken is basically a Gai Yang Chicken, a very common rotisserie in Thailand. We tweak a very traditional recipe with some different components. Obviously there are classics in there—lemongrass, ginger, soy, a lot of other Thai elements. Then we marinate for a minimum of 48 hours. And we baste them with leftover marinade the entire time. It becomes like a lacquer, sweet, salty, savory.

TH: You came on board with Ani Ramen in early 2020 to help lead growth. Is growth possible right now?

Things have changed a lot in the past couple months. And learning now from these two new concepts is going to help us continue to grow.

We’re still planning on opening more spaces towards the end of the year. Of course, we’re tweaking and pivoting with the environment, making sure our team is safe. For instance, in the kitchens right now, everyone’s wearing PPE equipment, changing their gloves every 15 minutes. There are sanitizing stations everywhere. We take temperatures for everyone who comes in that day. So we’re laying the foundations for when we continue to move forward.

TH: So the logistics of your role are just a bit more complicated. Does that add extra pressure?
NW: I thrive in a pressurized atmosphere. I love a challenge. And it’s extremely rewarding. When you’ve got something where you can actually hire back 25 percent of your staff, or donate to first responders—when you turn up at a hospital with a truckload of pizza, the look on the faces, it’s amazing.

I think I’ve always been a yes person. If something comes up, I think “Let’s find a solution to that.” So we’re fine-tuning, working on systems, tweaking menus and recipes to make ourselves better and better. That’s the vibe here, “Let’s do it. How do we do it.” For instance, we got these two places open in the space of a week and change. That’s impressive. At the end of that week, you get to step back and breathe and look at what you achieved as a team. That’s a cool feeling.

Ani Ramen locations are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rock City Pizza and Bang Bang Chicken, however, are fully operating out of the Jersey City location. When you order from either, you can also donate a meal for someone else half-price as part of their #BeAwesomeFeedSomebody campaign. Rock City Pizza Company and Bang Bang Chicken operate as a 501c3 non-profit and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help the pop-up assist displaced restaurant workers and hungry people in the community. Ani Ramen is also going to be opening a Rock City Pizza Company in the Montclair Ani Ramen location. Stay tuned to their social media for updates

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