Imagine being in the midst of a high-stakes cooking competition when you realize one of your ingredients is about to burn.
Nichole Foltz didn’t have to imagine. While racing the clock against 31 contenders in an Iron Chef competition, she realized the bacon marmalade component of her Swordfish Barigoule was close to ruin. “I had a panic moment. My heart just dropped,” she said.
Fortunately, the 2003 Swanton High School graduate averted catastrophe and went on to win the entree portion of the annual contest held this October by Landry’s Inc. As executive chef the past four years at Chart House, a seafood restaurant in The Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas, the victory was an especially sweet brass ring. Comments among the 13 judges included “flavors out of this world” and “simple but robust.”
“I was a little nervous, for sure, but I was excited to be chosen in the first place,” Foltz said. “I earned a medal and a million dollars in respect.”
Although cooking since she could stand on a kitchen chair beside her mother, the 33-year-old Swanton native took a roundabout route to her career. After high school, she tested the educational waters of pre-med, architecture, and journalism while cooking and acting as supervisor of the dietary department at The Toledo Hospital. None of those livelihoods suited her energetic spirit, especially the latter two which she described as tedious computer work.
“I’m an active person, and I’m always on the go. I guess that’s why a chef’s life suited me. I just never stop,” Foltz said.
Despite reservations from watching her parents struggle with a catering business, she earned a degree in culinary arts and hospitality management from Owens Community College in Perrysburg in 2009. She chose Las Vegas as her destination after celebrating her 21st birthday there.
“I fell in love with the city, and realized there were a lot of opportunities here,” she said.
She moved to the gambling oasis in 2010, and snared a job as a line cook at Bonnie Springs Ranch in Red Rock Canyon. Within a month Foltz became kitchen manager, and spent the next 1 1/2 years crafting her style.
But her talent and ambition were recognized by Mark Holley, regional director for Landry’s Inc. The umbrella corporation owns and operates restaurants, hotels, casinos, and other entertainment venues in 35 states. Holley hired her as a line cook at Chart House.
“I’ve been in this business 38 years. I know the real deal when I see it,” he said of Foltz. “She’s extremely disciplined. She has a motor that just won’t quit. She’s a 110 percent ‘go’ from start to finish.”
Within months Foltz moved through positions as kitchen manager and sous chef before becoming the restaurant’s executive chef. She’s also Landry’s task force chef, and trains their chefs and managers.
“To move that fast – that’s a huge feat,” Holley said. “She’s very intense. Her kitchen reflects what her style is.”
Foltz said she was a leader from the beginning. “They saw the amount of integrity and endurance I had to get things done, and the culture I created in the kitchen,” she said.
As the 13th Annual Landry’s Iron Chef Competition in Galveston, Texas, approached, Foltz and five other executive chefs from nine restaurants at The Golden Nugget Casino competed Aug. 30 to see which would represent the casino. She was required to create a salad and an entree that would match certain price parameters within Chart House.
Her Moro salad included frisee, arugula, piquillo peppers, ginger, blood orange, and chili soy dressing on a bed of avocado chimichurri sauce. Her entree was grilled swordfish paired with potato hash, grilled artichokes, bacon marmalade, and lemon shallot butter.
Foltz bested both categories, and traveled Oct. 9-10 to Galveston. She faced 31 of the best Landry’s-employed executive chefs across the country.
“It was an amazing amount of talent from New York to California,” she said. “It was a little bit intimidating to have all those people around you.”
What could have been more intimidating was Foltz’s standing as the only female in the competition. “(That) just kind of drove me to kick more (butt),” she said.
The contestants were given ample preparatory time, but once the competition began received only seven minutes to complete the dishes. Despite facing a required upgrade to the salad, and the kerfuffle over the bacon marmalade, Foltz was successful.
Her salad didn’t make the cut, but Foltz’s Swordfish Barigoule wowed the 13-judge panel and was named best overall entree. Her win shocked many of her competitors due to her young appearance, but all praised her for executing the dish well. The win also gives her an automatic invite to the competition next year.
“She’s humbled by it, but it was a very good win for her, and she deserves it,” Holley said.
Among the ensuing media interviews, and a promotional spot she taped for Landry’s, Foltz received the prestigious offer to appear on “Hell’s Kitchen,” a fiery competition series on the Fox network starring celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Unfortunately, her 10-14 hour workdays didn’t allow for time off.
Ultimately, Foltz may want to ascend Landry’s corporate ladder, “but the future’s up in the air for me. I’m going with the flow, riding the wave right now.”
She said an executive chef’s life can be overwhelming, but the moments of self-gratification she captures over preparing a successful, complimented meal makes it worthwhile.
“Sometimes, it was a hard road to where I am, but when I look at the big picture of things now it was totally worth it,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.