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Chef Spotlight: For Eric Nelson of Italian Kitchen, career change was his ‘best decision’

Eric Nelson is the chef at Italian Kitchen. (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Eric Nelson is the chef at Italian Kitchen. (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Being a chef wasn’t Eric Nelson’s first career. Instead, he came to it after years in the classroom. He calls going back to another classroom – culinary school – the best decision of his life.

Here are 7 questions and a recipe with the Italian Kitchen’s executive chef.

What’s your favorite dish to cook at home? Oddly, I don’t cook much at home due to my long days. But, on my days off, I enjoy spending the time on one main meal, which might become leftovers for a week. Meatloaf, enchiladas, tamales and a variety of casseroles have entertained my weeks. But, when short ribs were affordable, years ago, that dish was braised short ribs with roasted parsnips, Brussels sprouts, beets and potatoes topped with a brown beef, pan sauce. I loved this dish because it filled the belly and the soul.

Where do you eat when you eat out? I eat out far too much sometimes. Garageland is around the corner from Italian Kitchen and offers good food with a quirky atmosphere that I love. Manito Tap House is my neighborhood joint, offering a great beer selection. No-Li Brewhouse has solid beer and a great river patio for sipping brews and taking in that summer heat. I always love Sante. Central Food has a phenomenal balcony, wonderful food with fresh ingredients and solid cocktails.

Who or what inspired you to become a chef, and how? I became a chef much later in my life after years as a school teacher, and my inspiration to go to culinary school and become a chef came from both my mother and wife. Through college and teaching, I often cooked and dabbled with recipes and cooking techniques. First, cooking was for necessity, but later it became a passion. Through studying cookbooks and practice, I started to hone my skills in my home kitchen. Before my mother passed away, I found myself cooking a lot for her and my father, making tamales, enchiladas and, my father’s favorite, lasagna. Eventually, my mom suggested I train as a chef, and my wife, Laura, inspired me to go to culinary school. Best decision I ever made in my life.

What are your go-to ingredients? I work with a variety of ingredients at home, but my go to-ingredients are nutmeg and tarragon. Nutmeg is a beautiful spice if used well; it’s that mystery spice everyone inquires about when they dine. I enjoy tarragon with a variety of seafood and chicken dishes.

What was the first dish a customer ever sent back to you, and how did you handle it? I had a chicken piccata come back on a busy Friday night, a few years ago. So, in the middle of the rush, I remade the dish, and I hand-delivered it to the table. With a wink and a grin, I set the dish before the lady and said, “This is the best piccata sauce I’ve ever made.” She smiled, and I prayed it wouldn’t be sent back. After dinner, her boyfriend came and handed us, on the line, a $20.

What’s a dish you’ve never made but would like to, and why? When I was teaching at a residential facility in Virginia, the boys all had to take turns cooking a meal. One night, one of the boys wanted to cook something called lampredotto. I had never heard of it in my life. He gave me the ingredient list, which included cow stomach, and the next day, I brought everything for the dish. It came out phenomenally well. I always wanted to make it at home, but I often find myself running out of time. I would love to prepare this dish someday and make offal a part of my repertoire.

What dish or ingredient best represents you? I’m a true American: half Norwegian and Mexican Indian, so flatbreads like lefse, tortillas and fry-breads hot off the griddle or pan, slathered in butter or sugar and cinnamon, nourishes my soul, taking me back to my childhood. If you toss in some menudo on a Saturday morning, I’m a happy chef.

Fettuccine with Brussels Sprouts, Prosciutto and Pecans

From executive chef Eric Nelson of Italian Kitchen

I love this elegant, seasonally transitional Brussels sprouts dish. It’s both light and hearty in flavor. It warms the soul without being heavy. It’s also easy to modify.

2 ounces oil, divided

6 ounces prosciutto, coarsely shredded

2 ounces pecans, finely chopped

6 tablespoons butter

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and thinly sliced (use a mandoline, if you have one)

1 ounce garlic, minced

2 ounces onion, small dice

Pinch nutmeg

1 ounce white wine to deglaze the pan

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 pound fettucini, cooked (12 ounces of pasta water reserved)

4 ounces asiago cheese

4 eggs

In a saute pan, add 1 ounce oil, prosciutto and pecans. Once pecans are lightly toasted and prosciutto is warmed, set the pecans and proscitto aside.

In a saute pan, add 2 tablespoons butter and saute Brussels sprouts, garlic and onion until cooked. Add nutmeg.

Deglaze with white wine and finish with 4 tablespoons butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked fettucini and asiago cheese, and slowly integrate the pasta water to create a sauce.

In a separate saute pan, add 1 ounce oil and 4 eggs. Fry eggs to over easy and set aside.

In a bowl, add fettucini with Brussels sprouts, top with fried egg, and garnish with prosciutto and pecans. Repeat for three more servings.

Yield: 4 servings