Nik Fields didn’t take a conventional path to the kitchen. The chef and owner of Chic Chef Cafe, a restaurant on Central Avenue and Thomas Road that serves a menu full of Mediterranean and Caribbean influences, made a few stops along the way.
Fields was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from culinary school in 1996 and quickly flew to Rome to learn more. There, she stayed with a family who ran an olive farm and was inspired by the Italian way of life, the way everyone gathered around the table to partake in meals, with food being the element that brought them all together.
“The food culture there is so thick,” she tells me from her modern restaurant with concrete floors, brick walls, and exposed ceilings.
The restaurant, which opened in April, wasn’t particularly busy on an early Tuesday evening, though Fields says that Thursdays, Fridays, and weekends have been filling up.
When Fields returned from her Italian excursion, her parents were disappointed with her decision to pursue her culinary passion. Her Jamaican mother and Dominican father, who was a chef himself and did not see glamor or success in long hours and hot kitchens, encouraged her to pursue a more traditional track.
She moved to Arizona and got her bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, before obtaining a Masters of Business Administration and then working in finance for 20 years. Even then, she remembers cooking and putting together office parties for her coworkers, forgoing the potlucks everyone was used to.
“Working in finance helped me financially reach my goal, but it also taught me the fundamentals of business: how to speak to people, how to formulate a plan and find employees,” she says. “Everything I learned, I implemented into my own business.”
Fields started her Chic Chef Co. product line in 2017, while she was still working in finance. She had kept in touch with the Italian family she lived with 20 years ago, and they said she could grow her own grove on their olive farm. Since then, Fields has gone from producing two flavors of olive oil to 56, she says, including jalapeno, bacon, Italian herb, and white truffle varieties.
“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, like I literally had no clue,” Fields says of the experience. “We just drove down to California and that was the beginning of the celebrity clientele.”
She stayed in Los Angeles for three years after that, cooking on movie sets for the likes of Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Snoop Dogg, and flying to Chicago and New York at the drop of a hat. But then the pandemic hit. Fields was forced to slow down and reevaluate.
While the world stayed home, she hosted cooking classes on Zoom, sold recipes and spices, and taught people how to cook with limited budgets and ingredients. Fields also began growing an herb garden, which she uses in her spice blends.
She opened Chic Chef Marketplace in June 2021, adjacent to her now-open midtown restaurant, to sell her olive oils and spice blends in addition to other goods like chocolate balsamic vinegar, Chardonnay sea salt, bourbon whiskey barbecue sauce, and Jamaican jerk popcorn.
It all led to her own restaurant where Fields sports an apron and a hair net while Mary J. Blige plays in the background. A huge black and white photo of New York City hangs on a wall, reminiscent of the view from Fields’ bedroom window growing up.
She explains the menu, which has names inspired by her New York upbringing and hip hop culture. Mos Def is a shrimp scampi dip served with crostinis, Illmatic, a Nas reference, is a dish of pan-seared salmon with lemon butter sauce, and the Upper East Side is a plate of New York strip steak tips with garlic confit and mushrooms.
The dishes are an important way for her to connect her love of hip hop and Brooklyn with food, the chef says. And though she loves her background and what made her who she is today, she also recognizes the inherent struggle in being a woman of color at the helm of a growing business.
“It’s hard to be a chef and CEO as a Black woman,” she says. “I’m not respected by white chefs because I didn’t always do this and a lot of Black chefs don’t respect me because I’m not a soul food chef.”
Fields says that she never really had an affinity for soul food like Creole chitlins or Southern-style neck bones growing up, but luckily her classical training means that she can cook any type of cuisine.
And although the Chic Chef menu isn’t technically soul food, there’s still a lot of heart in it.
The La Di-Da-Dis, deviled eggs topped with grilled Cajun shrimp, burst with flavor. The Wu-Tang cocktail, served in a Chinese takeout container, is a watermelon mai tai topped with fresh mint, a blood orange slice, and a cocktail umbrella: a sweet boozy punch.
Whether or not other chefs cheer her on, Fields says that she and her family regularly celebrate Black culture. Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the emancipation of African American slaves, falls on the same day as Father’s Day this year. Fields’ father, a chef himself, was a major inspiration for her, though he ironically did not want her to be a part of the industry.
Juneteenth is a celebration of strength and solidarity, simultaneously commemorating the dark history of slavery and uplifting Black culture and progress since.
Fields plans to celebrate both the holiday and fathers everywhere in the Juneteenth and Father’s Day event Chic Chef is hosting on June 19. “A celebration of men and culture,” the menu reads. The jazz brunch goes from 11 am to 3 pm, with live music and lots of red offerings to symbolize the bloodshed throughout slavery, Fields says.
The menu includes a watermelon salad with feta cheese and mint, red beans and rice with smoked turkey and sausage, and a red velvet cake. Reservations are encouraged.
“Juneteenth is for the world to celebrate, but we celebrate daily by being who we are and showing up for ourselves,” she says.
2302 North Central Avenue, Suite 3
Hours: Sundays 11 am to 3 pm, Closed Mondays, Tuesdays through Thursdays 3 pm to 9 pm, Fridays 3 pm to 11 pm, Saturdays 11 am to 11 pm