Chef and restaurateur Nicola Curran Zammit shares her cooking tips and career learnings
20th Nov 2019
Over the past 20 years, Nicola Curran Zammit has worked in professional kitchens in Dublin, London and Sydney. For the last six, she has also been teaching professional courses at the Cooks Academy. In 2016, she opened TwoCooks Restaurant in Sallins, Co Kildare with her husband, Josef Zammit. Nicola will be at Taste of Dublin: Festive from November 28 to December 1. Here, she shares her career moments and top tips for whipping up healthy dishes that wow.
You’ve worked in kitchens around the world, from London to Sydney and in The Westbury in Dublin – what experiences had the biggest impact on your own career and did you take inspiration from any of those when setting up your own restaurant?
My interactions with my management teams through the years have had a huge impact on the way I manage my team nowadays. I worked with some amazing and positive leaders, and some others were extremely aggressive, and I learned a great deal from both and about how I wanted to motivate my team and be a positive role model.
What have been your biggest learning moments in your career?
I learned so much about myself and my own strengths as a manager as sous chef at the Morrison under Richie Wilson. During my time in Sydney and London, I did lots of stages in modern Asian kitchens, like Longrain, Nahm and Nobu. I am really curious about Asian cooking techniques, flavours and ingredients, and I learned so much from those kitchens.
What are the challenges of running a restaurant with your spouse and what words of advice would you share to others considering going into business with their other halves?
The challenge is not to bring the work home and try not to talk about it, especially negative issues that are happening when we get home. My husband Josef and I are getting better at that as time goes by, but it takes a lot of effort. It’s a little different with us because we had cooked together for years before we opened our own place, and we can practically read each other’s minds. My advice would be de-brief if possible at work, and try to leave the issues at work.
Who does the majority of the cooking at home – and what do your children enjoy eating that you feel is unique to your family?
We share the cooking – I cook the day-to-day family meals, and Josef mostly cooks on days off. My kids love sushi, so we have our own recipe with a tuna mayonnaise inside. We add soy sauce, wasabi, coriander and make nori-maki, which they can roll themselves, and always make extra for school lunch the next day.
What aspect of your day-to-day working life excites you the most?
I love service, when you’re ready after the day’s preparation and the guests start to arrive and the buzz starts… that’s what it’s all about, both in the kitchen and out on the floor.
When you opened TwoCooks, what did you and Josef want most for the restaurant – what’s your mission?
We planned to cook top-quality food using all the skills we have learned over the years, as well as try lots of new ideas. We always dreamed of a dining room that was casual and laid back, where our own family and friends would feel comfortable, like an extension of our home. When I’m on the floor, I like to explain the dishes to the guests, and it’s always really interactive, with lots of chats and a bit of craic, which is so important.
Three years on, what have you learned most about running your own restaurant and what do you feel you’ve successfully mastered at this stage?
Gosh I’m still a newbie. I have learned so much, but I’m not sure if I’ve mastered any of it just yet. I’ve learned to trust and empower people to do their jobs. I think it’s really important to employ people to do the things I’m not so good at, like marketing and accounting!
What can guests expect at TwoCooks over the festive season? And what menu items are you most excited about?
We have planned a delicious festive five-course tasting menu for €55. We are also using a local organic turkey farmer – this is no ordinary turkey, it’s really special, and it’s going to be a real treat.
Fermented, wild and healthy foods are something you experiment with – what are your suggestions for implementing these in Christmas cooking and do you have any simple swaps you can suggest people try to make their festive feasts healthier?
We eat a really traditional Christmas lunch at my parents’ house, but when it comes to the tea time turkey sambos, I like to change it up with some toasted sourdough; sauté the turkey meat and top with some kimchi and coriander salad. It’s the one day in the year my children are allowed to eat chocolate before breakfast from their selection boxes, so I try to counteract with a kefir smoothie – my kids love it, and I feel it helps to process all that extra sugar they manage to consume on Christmas Day! Milk kefir was the first fermented food I experimented with nearly ten years ago; it’s so easy to manage and so forgiving if you leave it for a few extra days. I always have extra grains for sharing, and give it to all my family and friends to give it a go.
What will you be talking about and cooking at Taste of Dublin: Festive?
I would really like to showcase this amazing turkey and, of course, offering my top tips for cooking the perfect turkey. I will be talking about TwoCooks’ new project called Eating for Nature – we are featuring a different farmer every month, who is farming with nature in mind, and promoting their product on our menu over the next few months.
Taste of Dublin: Festive runs November 28 to December 1 at the RDS, Dublin. For details and tickets, visit dublin.tastefestivals.com.
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