This ICE Alum Helped Open LA’s Otoño
One of our first Los Angeles campus grads, Nick Huddleston (Culinary, ’18), shares successes from his first job on the LA food scene: mentorship, versatility and community.
Not only was Nick Huddleston in the first graduating class at our Los Angeles campus, he was the first student to walk the halls of the newly renovated school on a tour. He may very well have been the first of ICE’s West Coast students to be officially hired when he began his externship two months before the end of his class hours. While that’s a long list of noteworthy firsts, Nick was motivated to attend culinary school by a feeling of falling behind.
A Los Angeles native, Nick graduated from New York University in 2014 with a degree in sociology. During college, he held a series of internships in the entertainment business and then landed a job as an assistant at The Gersh Agency. Nick eventually left and joined the fashion eyewear company Oliver Peoples on the corporate wholesale side, but his love of food led him to redirect his career path.
“I began my journey knowing no one in the industry,” Nick explains. With two older brothers he could turn to for guidance, he was connected to someone through their network who helped him sound out the pros and cons of culinary school. “The message I received was about building confidence in myself."
Nick decided that the formal training that culinary school provides would be better suited for him than what he describes as the “single-faceted version” of learning by working in a restaurant. “If I learned in a kitchen, I don’t think that I would have touched upon the curriculum that ICE offered,” he says. “And it paid off.”
Four months into the Culinary Arts program at ICE’s Los Angeles campus, Nick joined Chef Teresa Montaño’s opening team at Otoño, a modern tapas bar in Highland Park, a burgeoning neighborhood for restaurants. He acquired the job before his required externship began. “I thought it would be valuable to attend class and work with a new employer who was interested in helping me grow while I was in the program,” Nick says.
To convince Chef Teresa that this green chef was ready and able to tackle the position, Nick brought his module books to their first meeting. “I figured she would ask what I was learning at school,” he says. “I let her thumb through our day to day.” What she discovered on the pages, aside from splashes of egg and stains from chocolate, was Nick’s inquisitive nature, evident by circled terms and handwritten notes in the margins. She was impressed by his innate curiosity and dedication as well as what he describes as hard evidence of ICE’s accelerated and intensive program. “If anything, it was the expansive curriculum that helped catch the attention of Chef Teresa,” Nick says. “Chef flipping through it all was important to getting me the position at Otoño.”
Nick started in July 2018, a month before the restaurant’s official opening, and was brought up to speed on everything from the POS system to the recipes. “Otoño was the perfect place for me,” he says. “It spoke to my cultural interests in Spanish food with a modern twist, and I was able to learn at a newly opened business: how they edit their menu items, how they work through ordering, the trials and tribulations, it was second to none.” Nick says he takes a holistic approach to his work in the restaurant, applying a curious business mindset to creating what he refers to as “a community of diners under Otoño’s new concept.”
Fortunately, at Otoño he found more than an employer, he found a mentor.
“There are a ton of restaurants here in Los Angeles where the staff doesn’t have the connection to the higher ups,” he says. “Whereas we have coffee together to discuss new ideas for the menu. There’s a really special bond with Chef Teresa.” Case in point: Over post-work drinks, Nick and Chef Teresa discussed their shared love for Japanese cuisine and its similarities with Spanish menu mainstays (rice, seafood), which resulted in the theme for their Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu aptly named Aki, which means autumn in Japanese. (Similarly, Otoño means autumn in Spanish.)
In addition to the open lines of communication with Chef Teresa, Nick is finding the smaller kitchen environment a great place to learn. “I wanted a small staff where I could create meaningful bonds with the people I work alongside,” he says. He finds that there’s more opportunity for growth in the smaller kitchen setting where he’s able to take on more responsibility. “It’s really great; you don’t have to be in some back prep room where you’re not being involved in the whole menu.”
A self-described chef tournant, Nick can prepare the restaurant’s entire menu of offerings. An average day involves arriving on the line at 2 p.m., firing everything from the steaks or fish to specialty vegetables and octopus, which he cooks on the plancha. If it’s Tuesday, he is responsible for the staff’s family meal, which is designed from “meat, scraps and rice” and is served precisely at 5 p.m. Service starts at 5:30 p.m. and it’s push time until he breaks at 8 p.m. for a coffee or a run to grab a slice at nearby Triple Beam Pizza. After an energizing break, it’s back to the kitchen until last call at 10:45 p.m., when he cleans up and heads out with his team to discuss the day.
“Usually I wind up getting a drink in the area with my colleagues from front to back of the house to behind the bar — the entire restaurant is together, we talk about how slow or tough it was and we go through it together.”
The family environment at Otoño has been a bonus for Nick, who plans to take time in the future to live and work internationally. “We have so many visitors that come from abroad to the restaurant,” he says. “To be confident for a long-haul career, I need to work in other countries and cities that you can’t touch here. LA isn’t my only story.”
Nick has advice for students exploring externship opportunities. “My goal was to find a place that was built on food that I love to eat,” he says. “It’s not always about the hottest chef or prettiest development. It’s about what sounds good to you, what do you want to touch every day or take a spoonful of? It’s about what makes you happy and really comes down to the food.”
Pursue your future in food in ICE’s Culinary Arts program.