Chef Nick Oskoian
Nick Oskoian was born and raised in Monroe, Louisiana, but he didn’t grow up hunting and fishing, and his father didn’t teach him much about cars. “The men in my family were the cooks. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my dad. Nothing fancy, just cooking what we had. And my grandfather, he would practically throw food at us,” he recalls. “The savory goodness of his ratatouille with braised lamb over rice pilaf is my earliest food memory. He was an Armenian grandfather, but in spirit, he was a Jewish grandmother.” Or Italian, perhaps?
Nonna, “grandmother” in Italian, is the name of chef Cory Bahr’s latest enterprise in Monroe, the hometown he shares with Oskoian—although the two didn’t actually meet until about eleven years ago. Oskoian’s first food job was cutting gyro, washing dishes, and making salads at a small shop owned by a family friend. After high school, he went to the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State, in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where he excelled at everything but the 8am math classes. His second summer home, he met and began working for Bahr, at his first restaurant. Bahr is a booming, larger-than-life personality, but he took notice the natural skill and drive of the introverted young culinary student, and the two have been linked ever since.
Oskoian couldn’t resist the culinary lure of New Orleans. His previous restaurant experience there includes time at Alex Patout and Arnaud’s, two French Quarter institutions honoring New Orleans and Creole cuisines. Bahr enticed him back home to Monroe to be sous chef at the age of 24. “It was a great opportunity,” says Oskoian, “but a tough transition for an introvert like me. You have to talk to people—a lot—to manage a kitchen.” And manage he did.
After three years he returned to New Orleans, this time to the Delachaise wine bar on St. Charles, and then Domenica, a Chef John Besh restaurant, where he learned authentic rustic Italian cuisine. First he mainly worked the grill, and made antipasti and pastas. Then he focused intently on production. “It was like being a super-intensive prep cook. Everything, the stocks, sauces, made from the purest ingredients.” Although they were cooking country Italian dishes for the menu, Oskoian connected on a personal culinary level with the executive chef, who is of Israeli descent. “Through his heritage, and my Armenian roots, we shared an affinity for the light, bright, vibrant flavors of olive oils, lemon, and yogurt.” It was there he rediscovered braising, the preferred technique of his own grandfather. “It’s like magic! You take an unattractive piece of meat, give it some time in the oven, then it emerges a beautiful, melt in your mouth delicacy.”
Beautiful, melty, and starring on the menu at Nonna. “Cory’s been working on me for about two years to open an Italian place, and I finally gave in!” laughs Oskoian. In fact, it’s a dream come true. “We’ve always talked the feeling we get from our favorite bar, the most approachable restaurant, and the best casual fare, and that’s what we’ve put in to Nonna – an amalgam of all we love in dining. Very simple food that tastes familiar, the kind of dishes you want to pass around the table.” Just like at grandma’s house, whether she’s Jewish, Armenian, or Italian: Nonna.