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Beyond the menu: Nick Unangst

A conversation with Nick Unangst from SERG Restaurant Group.

Story by Robyn Passante + Photo by Lloyd Wainscott

Forty years ago, Nick Unangst took a side job as a cook in an Italian restaurant in St. Louis to help pay his way through college. By his senior year he quit school, realizing he was already doing what would become his life’s work. Today, Unangst is corporate chef for SERG Restaurant Group, overseeing the menus and kitchens of eight of the group’s many eateries. We caught up with Unangst to chat about food trends, tastes and more.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the kitchen? [Nick Unangst] When I was at Skull Creek Boathouse, the Town of Hilton Head had ordered sandwiches for 50 people for a luncheon, and I had put the wrong date down. They called me and asked where the sandwiches were, and I said, ‘I’ll be there next week.’ They said, ‘No, it’s today.’ I said, ‘Oh. Well then I’ll be there today.’ We went all hands on deck; we were 45 minutes late, but we got it done. A chef’s worst nightmare is forgetting a party. It’s a cardinal sin. But lesson learned.

What’s the biggest misconception about chefs? [NU] People are afraid to cook for chefs, but chefs eat worse than anybody. We’re eating a chicken finger on the run; we’re eating whatever right before it goes in the trash. It’s not like we’re sitting around eating steaks and lobster and shrimp and chicken. Sometimes we don’t even get a chance to eat. But everybody’s OK with that; it’s just the way it is.

What’s your favorite style of cuisine to cook? [NU] Italian or Mediterranean. I like the simplicity of it, and the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. The older I get, the more my tastes change. When you’re younger, you’re OK with big gloppy, gloopy plates of stuff with tons of components, and as you get older you can’t eat that way anymore, so you tend not to cook that way anymore.

Do you have a favorite ingredient? [NU] Fresh ground black pepper, and garlic in moderation. I used to use so much garlic it would be coming out of my pores. I went to Italy a couple years ago and I realized they don’t really use that much garlic. They use everything in controlled doses, so there’s more harmony on the plate. So I think garlic has its place, but I’ve cut way back on it. It’s like being tickled rather than being punched in the face.

What do you like to cook in your own kitchen? [NU] I love eggs; breakfast is one of my favorite meals of the day, and I don’t get it that much. Usually it’s a V8, banana, half a sandwich, maybe some oatmeal, nothing real clever. So when I’m off, I’ll do eggs and ham and fried potatoes.

Is there anything you make for others that you would never care to eat? [NU] When we get the request for vegan.

Tofu is not your jam, Nick? [NU] Actually, one of my failed dishes at Skull Creek Boathouse was a faux fish sandwich. I treated tofu like a fillet of flounder, I did a beer batter on it, fried it, put lettuce, tomato, pickles and tartar sauce on a toasted bun. And when you closed your eyes and ate it, you had no idea it was tofu. It could have been a mild fish sandwich. I thought ‘This is gonna be great! This is gonna put me on the map!’…. The only day anybody bought it was the day after we took it off the menu.

What is the next big food trend coming our way? [NU] I think goat’s going to be the next big protein, because it’s really sustainable. It’s fast growing, it’s inexpensive, and it tastes good, especially in the hands of somebody who knows how to prepare it.

Is it being served at your restaurants? [NU] It’s not on any of our menus right now. I’m trying to get my partners to embrace some of these things; they’re not as chefy as I am. But I think in another five years, you’ll see goat popping up more.

 

MAN BEHIND THE MENUS Nick Unangst is corporate chef for SERG Restaurant Group.

Eat More Chowdah!

We asked Nick Unangst for a great recipe and he delivered in a big way, providing the famous Skull Creek Boathouse Seafood Chowder recipe, scaled down for home use.

SCB Seafood Chowder

Ingredients
1 lb. unsalted butter
1 ½ cups flour
1 ½ quarts half and half
1 quart chopped sea clams (may used canned)
2 ½ cups yellow onion (diced small)
2 ½ cups celery (diced small)
2 cups potatoes (peeled and diced medium)
1 ½ cups clam consomme
1 ¼ tsp. sugar
2 ¼ tsp. black pepper (fresh ground)
2 ½ tsp. Kosher salt 

STEP 1: Sauté celery and onions in butter until soft and translucent, add flour to make roux.  Slowly add half and half, stirring constantly to avoid lumps.  Add rest of ingredients except the potatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce and simmer for 10 minutes.

Ingredients
¼ pound fresh local shrimp, chopped
¼ pound fresh scallops (Bay or Chopped Sea)
¼ pound fresh local white fish (grouper, flounder, bass, etc.)

STEP 2: Steam potatoes to just tender, steam shrimp, white fish, and scallops and add with potatoes before serving, garnish with fresh chopped parsley. Enjoy!