Chef Stories: Stephanie Alderete
Chef Stephanie Alderete's ears pop every day as she reaches the 28th floor of the Hilton Atlanta Downtown to start cooking at Nikolai's Roof. Since 2012, she's been quietly transforming the restaurant's vibe and tailoring the classic French-Russian menu to reflect her own style and values. Here, in her own words, the chef de cuisine shares her story, and how she keeps the award-winning rooftop restaurant's 40-year legacy strong but fresh.
My passion and desire to cook started in childhood. I cooked a lot with my mom at home, making dinners and watching my grandmother cook. She was the type that would cook for everyone and then watch you eat you never saw her eat herself. The first question she would ask when you would walk through the door was, "Are you hungry? Can I make you something?" Cooking was a natural desire. I just liked eating food and then learned I liked preparing it.
My uncle lived in Atlanta and since I came out here for vacations from Barstow, California, where I grew up, I decided to go to culinary school here. It was all I had passion for, but I didn't know what it took to be a cook. It's a lot of structure, at least in culinary school. I learned about front of house and about wines, even though I didn't like wine at the time. Wine tasting class taught us to read labels and appreciate wine more. It's an acquired taste and you have to try it over and over until you notice the small hints of something like blackberry or dark pepper.
When I started going to culinary school, I worked at EatZi's, a smaller prepared foods store in Buckhead, and found my way back to the catering kitchen where I also met my husband. I came from a small town, and going to a place like that with a bright cheese counter and stuff I had never seen before was a good learning experience. At the time, Ford Fry was the chef and he would make items like autumn couscous salad that were beyond your basic American potato salad.
My mother's friend worked an events space and found me a job at the Hilton as a line cook at Le Cafe, now Southern Elements. Going from a smaller operation to a banquet kitchen and 30-dish line was a little intimidating. Yet three months in, I became a sous chef. My first attempt at creating a special was using Opah, an orange-tinted fish fillet that I had never seen before. The chef gave me the fish and I just looked around to see what I had. The volume of 365 days a year, three meals a day and room service is a lot of work, but you learn so much about how to prep, read the numbers and have enough mise en place for 300 dinners a night.
After becoming a chef at Le Cafe, I came up here to the 28th floor. I think they noticed that I hold myself to high standards and am super dedicated. Nikolai's Roof used to be very dark. The floors were red, the drapes looked heavy and we used silver domes to cover entrees and then clang them to reveal the dish. It was like a Russian tearoom, ornamental and elaborate. When I took over in 2012, it evolved from there. Now everything on the menu is what I want. There are a few mainstays, like the pirozhkis, a puff pastry with beef filling, and caviar service.
I try to make simple dishes. I never want to put too much stuff in one dish because what's the point if you can't taste everything? Culinary school teaches you to include color, crunch and texture, but it really doesn't need to have every single texture. Now it's easier for me to think seasonally and about where I can get things. I now have a Georgia butter and cheese selection that used to be international. We serve Banner Butter and cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy, both from Georgia. Cheese is my thing.
Nikolai's has kept the AAA Four Diamond award for 27 years, which is reserved for the most highly rated restaurants and hotels in the U.S. During our upcoming AAA dinner in August, I will be putting my best foot forward to create amazing dishes paired with even better wines. It's an over-the-top event where it's all about food. The AAA dinner will stress me out two weeks prior, but that's just my personality.
This restaurant has been here so long and has such a legacy; I think some people disregard us. I want them to see that we are not just a hotel restaurant, or a restaurant that has been here 40 years. We are still here, making really amazing food and serving beautiful wines. We are still relevant.
Nikolai's Roof, Hilton Atlanta Downtown, 255 Courtland St. N.E. 404-221-6362. www.nikolaisroof.com.