Growing up as the son of a Vietnamese immigrant, I was inspired by Asian flavors from a very early age. It wasn’t, however, until an accidental job as a dishwasher that I fell in love with the idea of cooking professionally. Since then, I have been lucky enough to travel, eat, and cook all over the world. From fine dining in San Francisco (Quince) to living in Italy for several years, the melting pot of New York City seemed like the perfect backdrop to make it all come together. After working in restaurants here (Gramercy Tavern, Kappo Masa), I now run my own business making sushi and run a supper club called The Darkroom, located in Manhattan’s Financial District.
During the pandemic, I saw a lot of fine dining chefs and restaurants pivot to food that was good for takeaway. That's what inspired my idea for sushi boxes. I have quite a bit of experience in sushi and Japanese cooking. I wanted to find a way to make my sushi unique and I was reminded of an omakase I had in Tokyo at a restaurant called Hakkoku. The rice there had a brownish tint from the type of vinegar they used, called akazu (red vinegar). I started experimenting with making my own akazu recipe and finally after months of experimenting I had a rice recipe I was happy with. I use the highest quality fish I can source and try to give a slightly contemporary twist to the items in the box. The boxes have been a great success and I am very happy to have an outlet that allows me to make sushi again.
If you could go back in time what advice would you give your younger self when starting in the industry? I would make sure to tell myself that the journey is the reward. Especially once I got serious and into fine dining, I was always thinking of getting certain titles, which restaurants I would eventually get on my resume, etc. I think its awesome to have big goals and I have plenty of my own. But it’s also important to stay present in your current opportunity. Also not to compare myself to others. I was always worried that I wasn’t making as much progress and my peers, that I had gotten serious about any career too late, that I wasn’t where I “should” be. Now I realize that my story is so unique because I didn’t do what every one else did. That allows me to create dishes that no one else can. I’m so proud and grateful for my story now.
When you were building your career how limited were your resources? Well I never went to culinary school so all my training was on the job. I think culinary school is a great option for some people but those interested in the industry should know that you can really go all the way just through hard work. In fact I think its one of, if not the only, industry where you can do that. FOH or BOH, I can’t think of another field where you can come to the USA, literally start without even really speaking English, become fully trained on the job, and eventually become a GM, executive chef, or even open your own restaurant. That's really amazing and wonderful to me.
Where do you focus your attention day-to-day regarding your work? Right now I focus my attention on my own business. So in that regard, I have to focus on everything. Managing reservations, PR, social media. I also have to be constantly keeping my supper club dining room and kitchen in order as well as make time to develop dishes and recipes. The sushi boxes are yet another part of my business so that involves so many other things on its own, but has become very systematic for my, thankfully. This is also part of my bigger goals, so I think a lot about building my brand and a loyal customer base.
What is The Dark Room? It is an intimate, 8-seat supper club in Manhattan’s Financial District. The experience is sort of an intersection of food, art and community. The vibe is fun but the food is serious. The dining aspect of it is meant to be one of the best in the city. It has an air of secrecy, the location isn’t revealed until the reservation is confirmed and the exact apartment number isn’t revealed until the day of the guests dinner. There is also a curated art displayed by local artists that is for sale, so it also functions an art gallery. There is only one long table which makes it a great chance to meet new people. I had been starting to do a lot more private dinners and was enjoying that a lot more than my regular job. I just felt like I had so many ideas for dishes and needed a way to present them to the world. I didn’t feel quite ready to open a full sized restaurant, so I decided to open a small one in my apartment. The name “The Darkroom” is partly literal as the room is kind of dim and moody. I also love photography and there is a lot of black and white photography displayed so its a nod to that. A photography darkroom is a place for developing, which is what I am doing on a person level there. A photography darkroom is also a studio and I consider this my culinary studio. It has been so much fun thus far, and very satisfying to have created such a unique dining experience that people are absolutely loving.
What was your inspiration for The Dark Room? One of the biggest inspirations was the movie 42 Grams. In that movie he is doing a similar thing out of his house. I saw it and thought, wow, I bet I could totally do that. So seeing someone else do that was really inspiring. Oh, one other thing that inspired the name is the Kanye West album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, a nod to the word “Dark”. His creativity and work ethic have always been inspiring to me and that album is easily one of my favorite piece of art ever created. The cuisine is very experimental, I try to be inspired by all my culinary experiences. Both from cooking professionally and traveling. I also love to create dishes that have a personal story attached to them. I also try to bring together the various culinary aspects of New York City. I’ll use produce from the Union Square Green Market but also use interesting ingredients I find in Chinatown. I have an Italian butcher I love in the West Village and a Mexican one that has a special cut of meat out in Queens. I have such a diverse cooking background and there is no better place in the world for me to bring it all together than NYC. The space is located in the Financial District so I tried to give it an art deco kind of vibe. I was also inspired by small, moody private dining rooms that you’d find in the city. I wanted people to forget that they are even in someone’s apartment. That has worked so well, in fact, that every time at least one person asks me where in the city I live.
What are key characteristics you look for in applicants when hiring? To me, the most important thing is ambition and willingness to learn. I can teach someone cooking techniques and knife skills. Those can be developed. You can’t teach someone to be curious or to come in every day and strive to be the best. You can’t teach a good attitude. I need you to care about the job you’re doing and have a desire to do it a little better every time. I want people who want to be a part of something special.
What change do you want to see in (for) our industry? This is an easy one for me: The attitude towards mental health and substance abuse. To be completely honest, the whole “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” thing was the initial draw of the industry to me. It was just so much fun. But for so many years I was walking a very dangerous line, often times falling on the wrong side of it. Addiction is a very serious issue for anyone but unfortunately in the restaurant industry it is almost glorified. Its great to blow off some steam with co-workers after work but its very tough to moderate drug and alcohol use. We all know how prevalent its use is in our industry. The work itself is very high pressure and if you add on substance abuse, your mental health is sure to suffer greatly. I have seen it affect not just myself but so many close to me. Mental health on its own needs to be prioritized and people in the industry should feel comfortable seeking help or telling their peers that they are not well. It is easier said than done but its definitely something that I will continue to talk about and hopefully open up the conversation little by little in the industry.
One last thing: I know this interview is about me but I would like to mention my girlfriend, Lala Ziemski. She is also a private chef, food tv host, restaurant and hotel owner in Panama, and my righthand woman for The Darkroom. She was a huge part of creating the experience and curating the room. She was the one who showed me the documentary 42 grams and she saw my potential so much more than I did, immediately from when she met me. She has always pushed me to be my best self and has helped me deal with my mental health and substance abuse issues like an absolute angel. She also really helped put everything into motion. At the beginning of the year, I was making a list of my 2021 goals. She said “put quit my job and go into business for myself”. I wrote it down, somewhat half seriously, but it quickly became a reality. Anyways, I’m not sure if there is any way to work her into the article but it would be really awesome if you could. I definitely could not have done any of this without her.
Email Chef Nicholas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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