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At only 31 years of age, chef and restaurateur Harrison Hennick has considerable cooking experience behind him – and with a couple of new projects on the horizon considerable work ahead of him. The co-owner of Hamilton’s Nique restaurant, along with co-owners Gaby Gwyn-Neumann and Ryan Tracey, arrived from Toronto several years ago and set about understanding and gaining an appreciation for the evolving core of the city as a well as determining that he wanted to be a contributor to that re-vitalization.
“We immersed ourselves in the community before we opened Nique in October, 2016,” Hennick says. “We wanted to know what was the best way and where to open this restaurant. We met a lot of great people who helped us along the way.”
That much accomplished in a relatively short time, Nique has gained a considerable following, and it has to be included among businesses that are re-defining the downtown. Without getting into the gory urban-core details, Hennick has seen the improvement first-hand. “A lot has changed in downtown, even in three years,” he says. “The culture has really changed.”
Years ago, Hennick was cooking at a Toronto restaurant that led to a sort of A-ha moment. “My experience at the restaurant, which has since closed, was a factor in wanting to run my own restaurant,” Hennick says, adding that he and his business partners strive for a certain environment for the entire team – something he’s wanted to do for some time. “I wanted involvement and engagement on every level of the business. And respect. It’s why Nique is the way it is.”
He says that it’s a place without pretense and a place where “we could do what we felt in our hearts was right.” It’s a proper sentiment, no doubt. Nique is casual, has the right level of activity and din and is comfortable for what he calls just “hanging out.” The decor is big windows, open space, wood, metal and funky fixtures like Edison bulbs and shipping pallets.
His experience in cooknig has been key to how he’s gotten to this point, and his place in the culinary world. “I didn’t go to culinary school. It was hard knocks instead. I grew up in a Jewish family that was very food driven, and I was inspired by my mother’s cooking. I started when I was 15 and never looked back.” Hennick worked under George restaurant’s Lorenzo Loseto. “He talked me out of going to cooking school.”
As a FeastON restaurant, Hennick calculates Nique is roughly 85 percent local ingredients. “I pride myself on that,” he says. “We have great relationships with local producers.” That includes dozens of Ontario beers on the menu, including Hamilton beers.
Somewhere on their website, the phrase “cultural mosaic” appears, and Hennick glosses that by calling the cooking “inherently Canadian” but that doesn’t mean maple syrup and beaver tail poutine, he quips. “It’s an expression of the different cultures that exist here.”
He’s worked in restaurants that draw on the different styles and has travelled to many of those cultures. “I didn’t want to be bound to cooking French or Italian, or just doing North American food. I wanted to be able to do more. International flavours are exciting.” It makes a lot of sense from the perspective of giving his cooks and front-of-house staff the opportunity to learn and explore. And that, in turn, gives diners the same chance. It’s something that does work well at Nique.
The menu is the kind that has a wedge salad and a 40-day-aged massive ribeye; it has rigatoni and miso salmon; it has whole fried snapper and a black bean burger. It’s eclectic and versatile and can accommodate many food desires.
The fried Brussels sprouts are versions that people who say they don’t like Brussels sprouts end up liking — very much. They’re deep fried from raw and seasoned with a basic sherry vinegar dressing to which is added puffed rice for a differentiating texture and good ol’ chives for colour and a bit of zip in the garnish.
Korean ribs require your engagement: the ingredients come to the table; you build. “You get your hands in there and get a bit dirty,” Hennick says. “To me, food is communal, food is family, food is sharing.” And food is just a bit messy too. There’s an Asian interest on the menu that draws Hennick in. “It’s a fantastic way to carry flavour and it punches you in the palate.”
Cambodian calamari is an original to Nique, appearing on the menu when they first opened. The sauce is a rendition of a Chinese XO sauce along with bok choy, cilantro, peanuts and lime. “It’s big, bold flavours,” he says, “and a different way than anyone is serving calamari.” Truffled snap peas are that wonderful blend of truffle (in oil form), Parmesan cheese and that touch of crisp vegetal; it’s refreshing. A radish garnish adds a bit of colour and bite.
It seems there is heart at the restaurant with affable, competent and fun service that enjoys the terrain in the dining room. “It’s an open space and open kitchen where no one is left out and can have a good time,” Hennick says. With that, Nique fills a niche in its approach and philosophy that Hennick might say applies to both staff and customers.
By the way, as I mentioned above, Hennick alludes to a couple of new projects that he says will be up and running in the near future, so look for that.
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