An Interview with John & Nyna Weatherson of Trokay via Plated Online

 
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Seven years ago, John and Nyna Weatherson lived and cooked in Manhattan. John was chef de partie at Restaurant Daniel. Nyna was the head cheesemonger for Murray’s Cheese. 

“I remember saying to Nyna, ‘This is fun, but do you really see us here 10 years from now? What does life look like? Kids? Long commutes from Astoria or Jersey City?’ It’s not what we wanted,” John recalls.

He got up the next day ready to set new goals, but a call from his mother changed everything. “She’d been diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer, and the prognosis was very poor,” he says. “The earth seemed to stop rotation and fall slightly off axis for a moment.” 

They quit their jobs to move to New Hampshire to help his mother. “It was short-term planning, based on family need,” John says. “But the same day, I wrote a list of potential places we might want to go next: San Sebastián, Copenhagen, London, Tokyo. And at the top of the list was Truckee, California.” 

Where? And why? An old lumber town north of Lake Tahoe, Truckee has a large community of year-round residents in an area dominated by tourism, and it’s where John and Nyna, college sweethearts, visited on breaks from the University of Iowa and later married.

“During one of our staff meetings, [Boulud] said, ‘This is 2010. It doesn’t matter where you are. Go where your craft doesn’t exist. If you’re doing something special, people will find you,’” John says. 

But when his mother passed away, he lost his passion to cook, only finding a piece of what he’d lost when he returned to the ski slopes. 

“The first time I skied after she passed, I felt good for the first time in forever,” he says. “I remembered that skiing was one of my first true passions. I needed it to be central in my life.” 

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So, Truckee called. John and Nyna moved there for a project that fell apart three months later. The day their contract was canceled, the local coffee shop went out of business. It wasn’t what they had planned, but it was a start. They named it Trokay Café, using a peaceful greeting from a Paiute Indian chief, meaning “You’re safe; all is well.” 

For 18 months, they ran the café while working on Restaurant Trokay, which they opened in 2013.  

Though Nyna says she’s along for the ride—“most people call me ‘the wife,’” she jokes—she’s the CFO, bakes all the breads and curates the cheese program. She’s also pregnant with their second child, due in October. 

And during the three weeks the restaurant is closed in the spring and fall, John births something as well.  

“Twice each year, we scrap everything on the menu and begin anew,” he says. “We ask ourselves how we can better represent our region in food, about the ingredients we’ve been exposed to, about the techniques we’ve employed. We revisit all we’ve done with new eyes and perspectives.” 

Case in point: his chickpea in variation with dill and harissa ($14, recipe). “This recipe speaks to the flavors of the Maghreb,” John says. “There were techniques we wanted to pursue, namely fermentation (for the harissa) and extensions of puffed grain/legume technique, but also flavor combinations we hadn’t yet shared with our guests.” 

Just as Boulud promised, people have found them. What was once a pizza-and-pub fare town is now alive with restaurants that have followed in the tracks John and Nyna made in the snow they love. 

“When we opened the café, I only skied six days that year,” John says. “Plenty of Fridays and Saturdays last winter, we’d ski deep powder from 9 to 11:30 a.m., then haul it over to the restaurant and do 100 covers. The restaurant isn’t self-sufficient, but dinner five nights a week is super sustainable from a work/life balance perspective. I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it sure is fun.” 

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Q&A with John & Nyna Weatherson:

What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
John: Hard to say, because I've always followed my passion, but for sure something more lucrative. Probably medicine, because of its corollary aspects of hospitality. Either that or marijuana horticulture.  

Nyna: I’m not sure. Maybe I would have stayed in cheese, or if not food related, I would probably be working with immigrants, maybe as an immigrant-rights attorney. 

What is your favorite ingredient?
John: Eggs, for their versatility. 

Nyna: Cheese

How do you describe your food?
John: New-American Modern gastronomy. Ingredient-driven, terroir-focused, playful, evocative and delicious. 

Nyna: New American modernist cuisine, inspired by time and place.  The food at Restaurant Trokay has become autobiographical, what the food was at the cafe to where we are now has changed based on our understanding of our location and the ingredients around us. 

What cookbook is most important to you?
JohnEleven Madison Park or Relæ for ideas and technique. My signed copies of DanielAlinea and The Inn at Little Washington are meaningful too, but the most important book I own is my Food Lover's Companion, signed by my mom with an inscription wishing me great success in my culinary profession.  

Nyna: The truth is that I'm a total bookworm. It's fascinating to see what chefs and food professionals around the world are doing. But if I had to name one book I would grab if the house was on fire it would be... I DON'T KNOW. I would want to save all of them. We have a pretty amazing collection of signed books and ones that John's mom had inscribed and those would be the most important. I love the books I had signed by Rob Kaufelt and Liz Thorpe, my former bosses at Murray's Cheese, or Danny Meyer, who wrote incredibly kind words as well.   

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?
John: Everywhere and everything in my life, from our fantastic farmer Suzanne at Del Rio Botanicals, to the coniferous forest and fresh water rivers and lakes of the Tahoe National Forest.  

Nyna: John is the mastermind of the direction of the menu at Trokay. While I take liberty to curate the cheese list, it is a companion to our menu. I am always taken aback at the beginning of a new menu cycle because I catch myself saying, 'Wow, this is the best menu yet,' and I know I have said that before again and again, but every time I am excited about the new menu.  I am especially excited for this next menu in the fall/winter as our son will have just been born and we will be experiencing life in a new way. 

How do you find calm in your restaurant?
John: I found calm in my kitchen a few years ago, and operate the restaurant in a Zen state. I shed the management styles I'd been trained by, and embraced a new motif. The exception is when we're not sufficiently prepared. Being properly prepared promotes calmness and Zen in the kitchen.  

Nyna: The restaurant is my favorite place in the world. While there are times that I just want to go home, the truth is that our family spends more time in the restaurant than any other place. It truly is our home.  

What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
John: Lack of preparedness.

Nyna: When people don't take responsibility for their actions. It's OK if something doesn't turn out right; let's just make sure we don't throw anyone under the bus or have any attitude. We're a team at the restaurant, and no one falls alone; we pull each other up together. To quote Phish: "Alone we're tossed about like a bottle in the sea but together we ascend and only then escape this gravity"

What music is usually playing in the kitchen?
John: Phish. Almost always. Phish's music is about the enjoyment of moments in time, improvisation, creativity, and beauty, just like a great meal.  

Nyna: It is almost always Phish, but if I am doing accounting in the office it is probably NPR or some kind of podcast. 

What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
John: Figuring out a way to get my diners to enjoy the amazing collagen tissue around the ocular socket of a roasted fish head. 

What restaurant is your dream stage location?
JohnFäviken, because I love the pacing of the meal and borderline absurd approach to cooking.

NynaArzak. For me it would be amazing to see that kitchen and to spend time with Elena Arzak—she grew up in that kitchen and never left. While I have no aspirations for [our daughter] Arielle to be in the restaurant industry because it's so difficult, I would be proud if she continued to show amazing hospitality in any career she picks. 

What’s your bucket list restaurant to visit?
JohnJiro, for sure. The most difficult cuisines on the planet are also some of the most simple, and Jiro is a fantastic example of the Japanese concept kodawari, which we employ in our kitchen: pursuing perfection constantly, even though true perfection may not be attainable.   

NynaPujol. My mom is Cuban-American and my dad is Mexican-American. Growing up, I had no idea that the food I grew up on could be 'fine-dining' and now around the world there is a greater respect for Mexican ingredients because of restaurants like Pujol. I want to experience that restaurant, and taste things from my childhood in a new way. 

What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
John: Figuring out a way to get my diners to enjoy the amazing collagen tissue around the ocular socket of a roasted fish head.  

What do you like to cook on a day off?
John: I have to be honest: I don't cook on my day off. The restaurant kitchen is like driving a Ferrari. Why would I want to suffer through the Geo-Metro at home? On my day off, there's nothing I want more than to experience someone else's hospitality and cooking, even if I have to pay for it.    

Nyna: We don't really cook at home, but when I do it's mostly things for Arielle in the morning or quick snacks, as we always eat as a family at the restaurant for family meal.

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Article originally published on PlateOnline.com