Sous Chef for a Day

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Cooking with NoMI Executive Chef Ryan LaRoche.

Some call it luck, others call it fate. Ryan LaRoche credits the latter for becoming a chef. His first taste of the biz began with unglamorous tasks like washing dishes, busing tables and making ‘bloomin’ onions.’ But neither the dish soap nor the hustle of busing tables made him want to embark on a career as a chef. It was a show on the Discovery Channel called Great Chefs, Great Cities. Chef LaRoche watched in fascination, intrigued by the creativity of the chefs at Tampa restaurant Mise en Place. “I remember looking at thyme and having no idea what thyme was and what I could pair it with,” he reflects. “So I think that curiosity of formulas of dishes is something that clicked in my mind.”

His first job in a professional kitchen didn’t exactly fall into his lap. “I got my first kitchen job [at Sunset West, in St. Louis] on New Year’s Eve when I was 15,” he explains. “My mom happened to be a server and we were dining there for Christmas. The manager came out and asked if I wanted to make some salads on New Year’s Eve – he needed the help. That was the start of it all.”

Chef LaRoche started at NoMI five years ago as chef de cuisine under Executive Chef Christophe David. Upon Chef David’s departure, Chef LaRoche was one of many to apply for the highly sought-after executive chef spot. He knew it was going to happen, but he doesn’t attribute all of it to skill. He says, “A chef’s career is 50 percent talent and 50 percent timing.”

Chef LaRoche describes NoMI’s menu as ingredient-driven, and he presents food in a way that’s comfortable…in an environment for people in suits and jeans alike. The food is creative, yet easy to understand. “At the end of the day, I put vegetables on the plate. They’re perfectly blanched and seasoned; there’s not a lot of trickery involved. We like to be genuine and authentic with the food,” he affirms.

On this particular day, Chef LaRoche generously opened up his (already open) kitchen to me. I was his ‘sous chef for the day, but I felt more like an apprentice. He showed me how to make an exquisite tagliolini with roasted tomato and botargo (a Mediterranean delicacy of salted, cured fish roe, made from grey mullet). This isn’t your typical pasta – the tagliolini was made from scratch and the cherry tomatoes came from the local Nichols Farm.

Other unique ingredients for the dish included ‘OT tomatoes’ – they’re so painstakingly labor intensive to make that their moniker reflects the overtime required to render such perfect tomatoes. Each slice isn’t complete until it’s adorned with one slice of garlic, a piece of thyme and confectioners sugar, then baked in a 200-degree oven for a heaping 12 hours.

Among my tasks were to julienne the OT tomatoes, halve the cherry tomatoes, mince the garlic, julienne the shallots (Who knew there are two ways to slice an onion? If pureeing, cut against to the grain and if sautéing, like we were, cut with the grain). I then helped knead the pasta dough until it sprung back when lightly pressed and learned how to roll the dough through a chitarra (pasta sheeter). We probably slid the pasta dough through 10-12 times before it was thin enough to be sliced.

After the prep work, we headed to the hood and I watched Chef LaRoche whip up an incredible pasta in a matter of minutes. The only hiccup was getting the water to boil quickly. “A watched pot never boils,” he pointed out. That may be the case for water, but as all eyes were on Chef LaRoche, he delivered a sensational pasta that I’m going to do my very best to recreate at home using this recipe. I have a feeling that due to his 20 years of experience and access to some of the top ingredients in the country, his dish will have mine beat by a mile. Or more.

Adrian Orozco Photographs

Sarah Levy

About Sarah Levy

Sarah Levy delighted millions as the owner and proprietor of Sarah's Pastries & Candies, one of Chicago's most popular confectionaries since its opening in 2004. A graduate of Northwestern University and the French Pastry School, Ms. Levy is the author of Sweetness: Delicious Baked Treats for Every Occasion and the winner of the Food Network Challenge. She’s been featured in USA TodayBetter Homes and Gardens and the Chicago Tribune, among many others. Ms. Levy's now doing business as S. Levy Foods, and is a leader in the airport food concession business.