Jun 22, 2017 04:04PM
By James Vnuk
The career of Boiler Room executive chef Tim Nicholson took off like a Drake song: “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”
It was 2008, and Nicholson had just graduated from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts. His first cooking job was frying fish at the now-defunct Joey’s Seafood & Grill.
“That was my first kitchen job, working for my first real chef,” Nicholson says. “It was my foot in the door and made me aware of the whole industry.”
When Nicholson was younger and contemplating career paths, he couldn’t imagine working in a kitchen. “I never thought [my interest in cooking] would turn into anything—I took a cooking class in high school, sick of math, and ended up really enjoying it,” he says. “I was book smart, but I was drawn to working with my hands.”
Subsequent jobs in hotel and casino kitchens (first at 360 Steakhouse at Harrah’s in Council Bluffs before transferring to Jack Binion’s at Horseshoe) allowed Nicholson to master French cuisine, cooking his way up the hierarchical “brigade de cuisine,” before joining the Boiler Room as sous chef in 2010.
Working closely with the restaurant’s founding chef Paul Kulik, Nicholson thrived. Kulik promoted him to “chef de cuisine” in 2013, and Nicholson earned the “executive chef” title in early 2017.
He strives for what he calls the “perfectly imperfect” in his dishes, a perfect fit for the Boiler Room’s aesthetic. The restaurant consists of a multi-tiered bar and dining area, where high-brow elegance juxtaposes against unrefined details (intentionally) retained during renovations of the 120-year-old Bemis Omaha Bag Building’s former industrial space.
While conceiving The Boiler Room’s Old World, classy menu offerings, Nicholson has worked to regionally ground his take on French cuisine. Ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible.
“It’s kind of awesome,” he says, referring to his communication with local farmers. “We’ll text back and forth about orders all day, and they’ll even come in and try out my dishes. They care about their products, and they care what we’re doing with them.”
This kind of rapport isn’t limited to his sources—he enjoys being able to watch diners from his open kitchen, and frequently goes out of his way to specialize dishes for them, or recreate older meals for return visitors.
“It’s been incredible seeing Omaha’s palate grow over the years,” he says. “I love seeing that look on a diner's face of ‘where has this been all my life?’”
Because of this, Nicholson believes the Boiler Room has created something wonderful: “There’s nowhere else I’d rather work,” he says. “Every day at 4:45 we have a ‘family’ dinner, to relax and go over whatever we need to keep in mind for the night. When we bring on new chefs, we try to work with their own styles to fold them in with us, instead of pushing against them. I’m really fortunate to have a great staff.”
In 2017, Nicholson was recognized as a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, a national contest for chefs under 30 and one of the most prestigious awards for American food professionals.
Thinking about the honor triggers an episode of reminiscing, taking Nicholson back to his early days with the Boiler Room: “I remember when I first started here, we were actually invited up to New York City to serve at the James Beard House. I was just a kid still, and I was set loose to track down our ingredients, which we had overnighted to a kitchen I’d never been to. Later, the dinner itself almost turned into a disaster.”
Now, he and the restaurant have come full circle—but he hasn’t let his success go to his head. “I’m glad for the nomination bringing attention to Omaha. We owe a lot to Sam and Vera Mercer, our first patrons. I’m a humble person, so this all seems a little surreal. Every day, I’m still learning, pushing myself and the restaurant forward.”
Visit boilerroomomaha.com for more information.This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.