Tuesday, April 08, 2008

6 Questions for a Chef -- Ryan Nelson

To sit down and have a real lunch with a chef is a luxury so it was a treat when I had a chance to dine with Ryan Nelson, Executive Chef at The Oceanaire Seafood Room downtown. The 31-year-old Nelson celebrates -his five-year anniversary -- along with The Oceanaire -- in Indianapolis this September. Most days he's running one of downtown's busiest restaurants serving everyone from tourists to lobbyists, business people to celebrities. (Actor Richard Thomas was lunching a few tables over.) Under Nelson's management, the Indianapolis Oceanaire is one the top performers across the entire company.

In the past five years, Nelson has become an active member of the local cheffing community often acting more like an independent owner than a chain restaurant corporate chef. He plans his menu for seasonality and sustainability and uses local producers when he can. (You'll find Fischer Farms steaks most days.) Look for him as host of the upcoming Chef's Alliance dinner as well as at many charity and food community events. Nationally, look for a big award announcement soon as well as more on his work with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). (He's travelling to Alaska this summer and will meet some of his fellow board members who are name chefs.)

What did we have for lunch? He had a chop salad (he's trying to be healthy) and I had mahi mahi in a sauce so good that I sopped it all up with bread. (In the food world, one has to hope chefs look past bad table manners to the unsaid compliment of "that's so good!".) Plus, their three-course lunch for $18.95 is one of the best deals in town. (No word on what Richard Thomas had.)

1) What's your favorite restaurant or dish in town?
Elements. I've had meals there that were easily on par with some national, more recognized places.

2) What is your biggest problem with Indiana diners?
I reject the whole idea that Indiana's diners aren't adventurous. My clientele tends to be more willing to try new things. But more people in this city [than you would believe] tend to have a problem with where they're seated in the dining room! I've had women in tears when they didn't get the table they wanted. I think people are just more confident, picking and choosing where they want to sit, but there are a million little service-related things that affect where someone is seated that most diners don't even know about.

3) What's your favorite dish or ingredient that you can't put on your menu?
I can pretty much put anything on my menu, so my only limitation is cost. I can't shave truffles over everything.

4) What's the dish you'd like to take off your menu and can't?
About 45% of our menu is the corporate menu and there's this stuffed fish that's supposed to be sole. Sometimes we'll use something different, but it's stuffed with blue crab and bay shrimp with brie. It's so heavy! And there's just something about the brie and the fish that...ugh. Sometimes, when it's really hot in the summer, I just take it off the menu. But people like it. It's a really traditional dish.

5) What's your post work routine?
I typically eat something really light at the restaurant -- a piece of fish and some vegetables. I try to make dinner my healthy meal. I head home between 9 and 10 most nights, see my girlfriend, open a bottle of wine, watch the news.

6) What's the place you're most likely to be found outside the kitchen?
I go to a lot of Indians games. Also, I play a lot of golf in the summer and sometimes sneak in a quick round in the morning before work. [He plays Eagle Creek.]


Donald said...

Wow... $18.95 for lunch is a deal? I love good food and all, but I can't eat enough food at lunch for that to ever be a deal.

I guess everyone has their priorities...

braingirl said...

Yes, at The Oceanaire, perfect for business lunches and all manner of other necessary lunch-time fine dining, $18.95 for three courses is an incredible deal.

Anonymous said...

You would easily pay three times the $18.95 for the same meal at dinner at the Oceanaire - and the food is as wonderful at lunch as it is at dinner, so i agree it is a fabulous deal and a great way to try an upscale restaurant on a budget.

On another topic and for Chef Nelson- what are your favorite dish to prepare at Oceanaire? What are some menu items that are unique to our Oceanaire?

Donald said...

OK, points taken. If you take the approach of getting to try a good, higher-end restaurant's food for under $20, then it's a great deal.

I just think "OMG! $20 for freakin' lunch!". It's a little crazy to me when I can go to any number or Mexican, Indian or East Asian places and get something I enjoy more for under $10. But I guess padd thai or masaman curry isn't a great business lunch, is it? :)

braingirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
braingirl said...

Deleted my own comment above due to too many typos. What I said was:

Oceanaire can be pricey for lunch -- $25 or more for entrees. But with the lunch deal, it makes them a much better choice than say, McCormick and Schmick which is packed every day for lunch and I've never gotten out for less than $20 a person. (And at Oceanaire, the food is *significantly* better.)

Donald said...

Great point... I'll take Oceanaire over M&S ANY day. It's probably as good as seafood will ever get in Indy.

peter said...

You know what else is great lunch at Oceanaire? That platter of fish tacos with black beans and rice plus some pico de gallo and guac. And I think it's only $11 or so. There's also a really good burger made with Fischer Farms beef with salty fries. Both are favorites for an occasional lunch break at the bar.

braingirl said...

Yes! You just busted my next post -- Those fish tacos are next on my list!

Anonymous said...

Fish Tacos at The Oceanaire are outstanding!

Tim said...

$18.95 for a three course meal of that caliber is awesome...

Ryan said...

Thanks for the kind remarks. In response to the questions from anonymous; I don't really have a favorite food item that I cook. I do enjoy the incredible product that we recieve at the oceanaire. Our menu is pretty much all seafood, so we have great purchasing power with seafood purveyors and this allows us to demand the best.
As far as what is unique about oceanaire Indy as compared to the other restaurants in the company we are the only store to have a "cured, smoked and raw' section on our menu which highlights items that we have cured and smoked in house or left raw. Also my sous chefs and I are very active in producing our own charcuterie. We make our own bacon, lamb bacon, pancetta, breasola,etc. I believe that "technique" (making our own pancetta) equates to value. I look for this on other menus and its also the type of food I enjoy eating. Thanks