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Detroit chef Nik Cole cooks up something for the body, soul and spirit

Photo Credit: LeoSage Images

Native Detroiter Nik Renee’ Cole found her passion on the plate and pursued a career as a culinarian. She whet her appetite for the industry at the Art Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas and continued to carve out her craft back home in Michigan while studying at the Art Institute of Novi. Cole was determined to make her own way as she worked in country clubs and kitchens throughout the metropolitan area in order to gain valuable experiences.

The combination of her raw talent and her open, honest personality afforded Cole the opportunity to build a small business, catering to her growing clientele with an array of fresh, ready-to-eat meals. The business, Fork + Knife & Food, consisted of meal prep with a personal touch only Chef Nik could serve up. She met the customers where they were by adhering to their specific lifestyle goals, from cultural and religious preferences to dietary needs and health concerns.

In 2014, customer demand caused Cole to pursue Fork + Knife & Food full-time as a personal chef and caterer, serving businesses and functions large and small. In 2016, she decided to shelve the food prep portion of the business, rebrand and revise her own recipes. This pivot proved advantageous, and allowed Cole the creative space to connect and create key partnerships to lay the groundwork for a unique market experience in Detroit’s Historic North End community. A gastromart, affectionately named the Thank You Mart, is slated to open March 2018 and will include a full kitchen and bar. In addition to the gastromart, Cole started the Speak Easy: Storytellers Edition. The concept, like a home-cooked meal, is meant to bring people together to share stories that build-up, encourage and inspire.

Check out Chef Nik’s delectable interview below. And when you’re in town, be sure to check out her gastromart on the North End of Detroit, as well.

Where does your passion for cooking come from?
I love food, period. I love the culture, history, the taste, the friendships it forms, the laughter it brings, its basic ability to sustain life and heal the body. I have [loved food] since elementary school, when I would pick produce [daily] from grandparents garden for dinner. As a young child my parents had me take cooking classes at the church. I had no idea that my parents were pouring into my soul.

As for preparation, there is so much time, love and attention that goes into the consideration of each dish. If you ask any cook what a dish represents, there is usually a story. After the adrenaline rush from being in the kitchen, making the food, watching clean plates and smiles come back, that’s when you know you got your point across and that’s the satisfaction I’m always looking for.

Tell us about Fork + Knife & Food. Where did the inspiration come from to open your own catering company?
When I was in culinary school, I knew I didn’t want a conventional kitchen job (I later found out that it’s necessary in order to master your craft). When I started Fork + Knife & Food, I offered meal prep, personal chef services, catering. My prices were all crazy and I would take any job in order to make money. My family was eating, but barely. At one point I resented this business that I had created. So, I started to take a hard look at my services and scale back. I looked at what I was good at, what I liked to do and what brought in money. Now I’m able to take the jobs that I really want to. They are usually much smaller than what I saw myself doing when I started but they are mutually satisfying to myself and the client.

What is a gastromart, and why did you decide to open up one on Detroit’s North End?
A gastromart is really a fancy way to say that the market will also have a full-size bar and full-size kitchen. I’m excited because I’ll get to focus on good, local ingredients in my simple but delicious dishes. We will also get to give local producers a home to sell their products on our shelves. I get to do all this in the city where I was born and raised. Like many of the neighborhoods in Detroit, the North End has been through some things, but its residents advocate for the community every day. Most of the new business owners are opening with the philosophy that they will also be new residences of the North End. I’m no different. I’ve always said that if I had the chance to open a brick and mortar, it would be in the city and somewhere that made sense. The North End makes sense.

As a Black woman, what do you consider your superpower to be?
Being a Black woman is a superpower in itself. My superpower is perseverance. There are so many roadblocks in our way. There are so many reasons why we cannot be successful and so many people telling us we cannot be. [There are] so many things not taught to us and so many things that we are not just given access to. The will to push past things that were designed to hold us back is powerful. I understand that I can have anything I want. The power to persevere and make it possible in spite of, no matter how long it takes or how ugly the process seems, is still beautiful at the end. It’s actually that [Black girl] magic we talk about.

What key skill sets or qualities makes you unique as an African American female leader?
I believe that if my dreams don’t scare me, I’m not thinking big enough. I’m uncomfortable with being comfortable and I use that notion and gut-wrenching feeling as fuel to keep going. I’m also not afraid to admit that I [have failed]. I’ve failed over and over. Recognizing and owning failure keeps me humble and makes me really appreciate winning.

What thoughtful or encouraging piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell myself that there is no such thing as perfect timing. Sometimes I sit and think about all the amazing opportunities that have come my way in recent years. I know for a fact that if they had come any sooner, I would not have been ready. Instead of rushing the process, walk in your purpose and life will fall into place.

Define innovative methods you apply to your leadership role and life.
Being transparent for sure. I’m a leader, not a preacher, so I can’t tell anyone how they should live their life, but I can be honest about mine, and help people steer clear of the pitfalls [that I’ve experienced]. I can encourage others to be just as transparent and help as many people possible. This is the very reason I created The Speak Easy: Storytellers Edition. I wanted to encourage transparency so that as many people as possible don’t just feel encouraged leaving, but can find the proper networks to be leaders also. I’m willing to give away everything I’ve learned. My goal as a leader is to empower others to be leaders too. You can’t possibly be a leader if you are walking alone.

What are three habits you implement into your daily routine to maintain your success?

  1. I wake up super early, like 3:00 am or 4:00 am early. I’ve found that I am more productive during that hour. I wish I had known this earlier on.
  2. I write everything down. I like to make things visual and commit them to memory.
  3. I also keep a group of accountability partners. People who are likeminded, people that you can bounce ideas off of, people that will tell you the hardcore truth but will also be your cheerleaders. We all need some encouragement.