As dynamos go, Chef Nikki Dailey seems pretty grounded. “The first time I came to Carpinteria, I saw kids playing, you know, kids on bikes,” she recalls. “I saw a girl running around in a princess gown on the streets. There was something very real about it. So I told my husband, let’s open a cooking school here.”
Today, not quite a year later, she has, if not a school, at least a small empire. “The cooking classes, a team-building seminar at Deckers, a catering service, and, oh yeah, the food truck. Do you think,” she asks in all earnestness, “I should do a restaurant?”
It might hinder her. Dailey, an attentive listener as well as a gregarious talker, comes to these accomplishments from globe-trotting experiences very near the top of the cooking universe. It helps to have kicked off at an early age. “When I was 4,” she laughed, “I used to do a cooking show for my stuffed animals. I’d line them all up with plates and forks and cook for them.”
It didn’t end there, to the chagrin of her protective Sicilian grandfather: Dailey insisted on working in real restaurants in Orange County, where her family had moved from the East Coast, well before she reached the technically employable age of 16. “I was a weird kid,” she admitted.
After excelling at El Dorado High, Dailey made a real run on college and a career her single mother (and grandparents) would appreciate: premed. But chemistry only reinforced the real love of her life: kitchens. Between sessions, she traveled the world. “Maybe you don’t know this,” she divulged, “but every year Virgin Airlines offers a $250 ticket to anywhere. So I would just wait.”
She learned international foodways, like how to cook (though not savor) monkey brains, in restaurants from Israel to Fiji. Along the way, she attended the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park and, ever the dynamo, staged (pronounced “stodged,” aka working for no money) under the best chefs in America, including Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, who was her favorite because his skill is matched by passion.
On a recent hot August night, 10 of us gathered in the Heat Culinary kitchen for a class on American barbecue. The menu was ribs baked with a rub and served with a sauce, roasted corn with a four-alarm fiery sauce, warmly spiced corn bread, and slaw. Dailey began with a funny fast rap about how things ought to go, asking for lots of questions from the two cooking stations — teams, it turned out — followed by a quick flow of anecdotes and unorthodox tips. I’ve cooked all my life and learned a few great tricks, including better knife technique and how to look at a recipe (guidelines more than rules, she implored of her recipes).
At the end of the class, a meal happens, with the two teams crowded around one table and the pass-the-salt camaraderie high. For the reasonable price of $60, all the ingredients, know-how, and venue are provided — you bring your own wine and beer. It’s a much more delicious version of the nearby Palms Restaurant, which I also love, where you cook your own steak. There were lots of leftovers, too.
But this all-out evening is only a small part of Heat Culinary. Dailey’s successful catering biz combines Italian love with professional know-how, and her food truck — featuring burritos and chicken and waffles — is currently navigating our town’s Byzantine rules and starting to spread out from corporate stops. An Isla Vista experiment is being considered, and the Funk Zone has yielded some big nights.
In all of this dynamism and fun, it’s easy to lose track of Chef Dailey’s depth of experience. “She was a saucier at The French Laundry,” said an older man at the class, clearly a devotee. “Do you know what that means?!?”
Later, eating scones with espresso in a Mesa café, I tell her about the aside. “Well, he’s almost right,” she said. “But that’s not what I’m all about. I have some people come to the classes who say, ‘I don’t know how to boil water.’ And they’re intimidated. But hey. That’s not me. I’m fun. I’d love to teach you how to boil water.”
For info on Heat Culinary classes, catering, and the food truck, call (805) 242-1151 or see heatculinary.com.