Meet Nico Russell, Chef & Owner of Michelin Star Restaurant Oxalis

Nico grew up in California in a culturally blended household, experiencing Mexican and Filipino cuisine from a young age, cooking alongside his mother who often used produce from the family garden to make his favorite dishes. After enrolling in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco immediately after high school, Russell began working in French fine dining with Chefs Joel Guillon and Roland Passot, eventually moving to Chez TJ, a Michelin-starred destination run by Chef Scott Nishiyama, then Chef Jean-Francois Bruel at Daniel, and eventually at Chef Mauro Colagreco’s two Michelin-star restaurant in the south of France, Mirazur.

After returning to New York, Nico began pop-up Oxalis. Over the course of two years, Russell hosted more than 30 distinct dinners, including a sold-out, month-long residency at Colors on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In December 2018, Oxalis settled into a permanent space in Brooklyn, giving the area between the Prospect Heights and Crown Heights neighborhoods a slice of the French Riviera.

With a commitment to supporting local food systems, Nico collaborated with Chefs for Impact on a pop-up fundraising dinner with C4I Chef Educator Kristina Ramos, celebrating their Filipino heritage for Filipino Independence Day. The goal was to celebrate the foods they grew up eating but with local ingredients that didn't compromise the dishes identity, and introducing new flavors to those who have never tried Filipino food before, while transporting Filipinos back to their roots.


We caught up with Nico ahead of the dinner and he shared what a sustainable food system means to him, his cultural influences, and his advice to young chefs.


Welcome Nico to Chefs for Impact!


By Nico Russell as told to Chefs for Impact



TF: What is your definition of sustainable gastronomy?

NR: You know, I think it lives in a few ways. I think working in your food system with farmers,

fishermen, everything in your area. From my perspective as a professional chef who has to source every day, working directly in our communities with the food systems that are there in our region. Us working with these local farmers, these small producers, we get very excited about that and they can do what they want because there's a market for it that we operate in and support.


And I think another thing too is figuring out obviously not just what's at the farmer's market, but talking to these people. We talk to a lot of foragers as well saying, “Hey, what should we be eating?” And you know, we have a seafood focused restaurant, so we have a lot of conversations with fishermen.


Having those conversations, understanding a bit better of what we should be doing. Let's have a conversation about what you think we should be doing. I think having that conversation with these producers, these farmers, these fishermen, these people makes you understand it a little bit more.


TF: What would you say are the challenges in the restaurant space to implement a more “sustainable” kitchen?


NR: I think you never have enough working professionals in the kitchens, you never have enough, or you don't feel like you have enough. There's too much to get done in one day every day. Oxalis is a good example where we've created a lot of use for a lot of different products to create different products as a byproduct or whatever it might be. They have a first, a second and even sometimes a third life here. It happens a lot where we get a second life, but I think there's another part of it where we can get something else out of that again, which creates full utilization of every part of a product.


And I think that that means we have to buy less. That means we can use what we already have. That helps a lot, making sure that these products from these small producers don't go to waste, which is a really important thing to us. But that just takes somebody to go through and say, okay, I have this today, I have this, I wanna do this. It's really hard because it just takes a body, and in restaurants, especially small restaurants, they never have enough to afford that body.


I love these small producers, but especially after COVID, they have to charge so much, a lot more, and we're willing to pay it. It's just if you don't get full utilization out of that product, it begins to really become a bit stressful.


TF: What would you say are the challenges in the restaurant space to implement a more “sustainable” kitchen?


NR: I think you never have enough working professionals in the kitchens, you never have enough, or you don't feel like you have enough. There's too much to get done in one day every day. Oxalis is a good example where we've created a lot of use for a lot of different products to create different products as a byproduct or whatever it might be. They have a first, a second and even sometimes a third life here. It happens a lot where we get a second life, but I think there's another part of it where we can get something else out of that again, which creates full utilization of every part of a product.


And I think that that means we have to buy less. That means we can use what we already have. That helps a lot, making sure that these products from these small producers don't go to waste, which is a really important thing to us. But that just takes somebody to go through and say, okay, I have this today, I have this, I wanna do this. It's really hard because it just takes a body, and in restaurants, especially small restaurants, they never have enough to afford that body.


I love these small producers, but especially after COVID, they have to charge so much, a lot more, and we're willing to pay it. It's just if you don't get full utilization out of that product, it begins to really become a bit stressful.


TF: How do you infuse your cultural background into your cooking and how important is that to you?


NR: It's very important. I think every chef kind of has a reference point from their life. My mom's side, she's Mexican and Filipino. I have a huge family on that side. So I spend a lot of time with that family, and food is a big part of that family. And I think in California, especially in Northern California, where I'm from, there is a huge mix between the Mexican and Filipino community because they're so dominant and the cultures really kind of go together a little bit.


Especially in the households I grew up in, they were very much in tandem. But I thought that was like a normal childhood, you know? And in my professional career, it was really hard because I'm very French trained, but I think that our palette has really at Oxalis, geared more towards those sour notes, those spicy notes. They have a lot more flavor than a classically French restaurant I'd say because of the reference point that I have, which is my childhood and the homes I lived in.


I think that plays a role, especially with the food that we do, where it's very bright, needs a lot of preservation, it's a good amount of spice. It just feels like something different than a French restaurant. And honestly, when I went to France and I worked there, I was like, oh wow. I was lucky enough to work in a place where I could see food similar to that, not quite the same, but their food had spice, it wasn't just monotone. I felt like life in the food, andI think that you really feel that with our food.


TF: What is important to you about supporting organizations like chefs for impact?


NR: I think it's really important to talk about sustainability. I think it's very important to get lost in the specifics of it. Food systems are a big thing for me. We saw it during the pandemic. If you're not able to support these food systems, they will go away. There's a thousand conversations socially we'd love to have, we're also operating the restaurants and it takes a lot of our bandwidth, almost all of it. And the small chance we get to be a part of this is really important to us. And again, this is work we've done, whenever we can, we do. My business partner and I


both come from San Jose, California. We both kind of grew up where we said, if we had an opportunity to do anything like this, we're gonna take it because we saw it firsthand. We grew up in a working class community in the bay area where the wealth disparity is so crazy there. And I think we always thought that, especially with food systems, it's really important that these people have these conversations.


TF: What is your advice to up and coming chefs?


NR: Don't be scared to look dumb. I mean, it's hard. Chef is a weird role because you're supposed to have all the answers, but I don't think there's a problem with problem solving with your team. There's probably a reason why you hired these people. You saw something in them, you believed in them. I think you need to lean on that. I've had to learn that. We operate small restaurants. I had to do a lot of learning on this front.


And again, it's hard because your business is simultaneously going through things and you're stressed or you're overworked, or you're trying to find balance. I have kind of yet to do so a little bit, but I think that's an important thing. Don't be scared to just be wrong a little bit and kind of accept it. People will respond to that. People will respond to a genuine answer or interaction with you rather than something that feels almost performative. I worked in a lot of big, really great kitchens all over the world and we started a popup after that. That doesn't translate. Being in a really great place that has all these systems and support and resources for these things. And then just being completely by yourself and doing everything yourself, it's like night and day. And I had to learn by myself and I think that having confidence in the things you know, and having confidence in things you don't know is a skill that very few people have. I've seen very few people be able to be wrong with grace. I think that that's been a very important thing, especially when you're leading people to be like, “okay, that works better, let's do it. That's a way better result, let's do it that way.” It doesn't make people lose respect for you. It's a hard thing to think about, especially from what we were taught as cooks, but I think it's the only way that we can really create a space where people feel comfortable to operate and contribute.


Especially when you're doing the kind of food that we do at Oxalis, where we're trying to do something that you don't really have much of a reference to before or experience with, so, you're gonna get something wrong. And just understanding that is really important.


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