A New Chef in the Kitchen at Nicola’s in OTR
By Sara Celi
Photos and Video by Madison Schmidt
Jack Hemmer is living out his childhood dream. He grew up eating the delicious Italian cuisine at Nicola's restaurant in Over-the-Rhine, savoring pasta bolognese and relishing the tender cuts of veal. He told himself that one day, he'd open a restaurant just like it.
But as of June, the kitchen at Nicola's is his. Jack Hemmer is the new executive chef for the restaurant, and when you talk to him about the gig, you can hear his excitement about the new job.
"My dad and Nicola have known each other for years. I started coming here and eating when I was ten-years-old. I grew up eating the amazing food here and fell in love with Italian cuisine," he told us one afternoon when we stopped by the restaurant. "When Nicola called me and asked me to be the executive chef here, it was an opportunity to go back home. Nicola is like my Italian uncle, I like to say. He's always been very good to me, and very supportive."
Jack's culinary journey has wound around the city. He's been part of the staff at some of Cincinnati's best known establishments. Over his career, this has meant stints at Via Vite, Quarter Bistro, the Mercer, Kaze, and Embers. Along the way, he studied for a short time at the Midwest Culinary Institute. And while his path also includes time at Nicola's in 2009, Jack didn't always expect his life to wind back to the place that he loves.
But he says, life can be funny that way.
"This is like a dream," Jack told me as we sat at a center table in the dining room.
As the new executive chef, he's adding his own brand to the Nicola's menu, which now has a full spate of features showcasing his signature and taste. Since June, Jack has also added staff, changed schedules, and modified the preparation process.
"The caprese salad and the veal saltimbocca have probably been our most popular additions and changes so far," he said. "I wanted to do classic Italian dishes, like the ones I grew up eating here, but then put a new, modern spin on them, oftentimes with the presentation, and the garnishes."
Jack took Cincinnati People on a tour of the kitchen during our visit, and he explained some of the new aspects of the menu and the experience. Our visit showed off a busy and bustling back kitchen working to prepare a myriad of dishes for that evening's dinner service. While he walked through past various stations, Jack told us he still wants Nicola's to be a reliable spot for special occasion dining. Patrons have made memories there for 22 years, and he wants that to happen for at least 22 more.
"We first try to be the best Italian restaurant in the city, but then we also want to be the overall best restaurant in the city," he said. "We want to be the place where people come out, and they know they can count on us for a spectacular evening with great food and a great experience."
Jack says his biggest challenge as executive chef has been fitting his management style to the existing staff. The team has also expanded, going from five cooks to nine. He says he has high hopes at the group can continue the tradition of excellence.
"Personally, I don't think fine dining will ever truly go away, but I think restaurants have to adapt and change to keep people still walking through the door," he said. "We still want the experience of fine dining and being pampered."