Nicole Gajadhar, Head Chef, The Loyal

Nicole Gajadhar is the head chef at The Loyal in New York’s West Village, serving American dishes and cocktails
January 2022 728×90

Longtime West Village resident and chef Nicole Gajadharcredits her daily walk to work with giving her the time she needs to plan and reflect.

For 17 years, Gajadhar has roamed the streets of the city center and crafted excellent menus and unified kitchen brigades; She first headed to NoHo where she made a name for herself running the kitchen as the head chef at Saxon and Parole.

After leaving the spot she helped become a downtown favorite, her culinary expertise needed a new home. She joined Michelin-starred restaurateur and chef John Fraser, a culinary pioneer best known for redefining the role of vegetables in American cuisine, from imaginative fine-dining restaurants to nostalgic neighborhood breweries, as head chef at vegetarian restaurant Nix. Fraser’s Michelin star. vegan restaurant in the West Village.

In May, The Loyal, Fraser’s beloved West Village bistro reopened with Gajadhar as head chef. Since its opening in 2017, the restaurant has become a neighborhood institution. The Loyal serves seasonal American dishes and cocktails for indoor dining, as well as 30 outdoor seats on the Bleecker Street sidewalk.

Fraser has made it a point to stay open during difficult times to keep its employees working and to be a beacon for the neighborhood. Nicole Gajadhar’s place as a lighthouse keeper is cemented every day as she takes into account the changes, ebbs and flows in the neighborhood and interprets them into her menu.

DAVO February 2022 728×90

How did you come to want to become a chef?

I was raised on my grandparents’ farm in Trinidad, always playing in the kitchen and learning to cook as well as planting, growing and harvesting our crops seasonally and was influenced by cooking styles of the East Indies and the Caribbean by creating dishes from the environment. It had a profound impact on what I wanted to do with my life.

My family moved to America when I was nine, but I wasn’t sure about my career goals. I spent two years in college at Borough of Manhattan Community College, graduating not knowing what I wanted to do. I always knew I wanted to do something creative. One night my aunt had attended an event at BAM where she spoke with the chef. As I chatted with her about her experience at the event, chatting with this female chef about the food served that evening, I was reminded of how much I loved cooking as a child and how I thought that I wanted to be a chef. The conversation inspired me to explore a career that was once important to me, so I took a course that led me to study at New York City College of Technology. I chose NYCTT because they were not only well suited financially, but they also offered a full degree with their program. This allowed me to start preparing for a BA in hotel management.

I was inspired to pursue my dreams in the culinary arts and embark on a course that took me to spend a semester in Florence, Italy, and the realm of a chef’s life. I was extern at Tabla, worked at 10 Downing, Tertulia and The Lion before joining the AvroKo Hospitality Group at Saxon + Parole.

Tell us about the concepts you were involved with when you were at AvroKo Hospitality Group.

I was on the opening team with Executive Chef Brad Farmerie for The Poni Room.

Prior to that time, when they partnered with JetBlue, I was part of the team creating the menu for their Mint program, JetBlue’s new approach to business class flying. We designed dishes that had to taste good, taking into account that taste perception is altered when you fly and the logistics of preparing food for such an important operation. I was part of the Saxon + Word team. When I helped open Saxon + Parole Moscow, it was all about working with locally available ingredients to create the same Saxon + Parole experience.

What is the composition of The Loyal’s kitchen and staff?

My cooking philosophy is that we are a family team. My staff cooked with me when I was a cook; they have always worked with me for over 10 years and joined me at the new restaurant. Everyone is super equal, I have three cooks, a cook prep and a part-time pastry chef and together we serve 70 to over 100 covers per night. I emphasize diversity and inclusion in my cooking and it resonates throughout the restaurant.

What is on the menu?

We offer a manageable, seasonal and very tasty menu. The guests enjoy the dishes. The best-selling dishes are homemade pasta and vegetarian-vegetable dishes. Notables include the ½ pound Piedmontese Burger, Sweet Potato Curry, Tots Ducks and Sundae Set Dessert.

Amy Racine, Beverage Director of John Fraser Restaurants, leads the Loyal’s wine and cocktail program, which serves innovative cocktails with a cheeky twist and an adventurous wine list full of surprises.

What is your vision of the industry today?

We need to take a very holistic view of sustainability that spans the whole operation. It’s about supporting the planet and supporting our team. It is about “thinking and acting hospitably” in all areas. The industry is changing; being renewed and reopened, with a broader perspective of how we run things. The main objective now is to find staff, focus on treating staff and move in a different direction with new attitudes towards sustainability, a healthy work culture and the food suppliers we engage in the future.

The industry as a whole needs to help staff get an adequate salary to live fairly. I commend my boss John Fraser for reopening The Loyal during the pandemic so our staff could work. It showed his appreciation for his employees and his support for the community.

You are a member of the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, why did you join and what do you see as the role of the organization for the industry?

I have been a member since 2019. Working in the kitchens takes a lot of time. I literally don’t have time to network or build relationships. I wanted to join a group that I know would understand, uplift and encourage the growth of their peers as well. I served on the task force in 2020 with Alliance Founder Sara Moulton to pave the way for a healthier culture within the Alliance.

I felt it was important that the Alliance be rebranded and evolve and really start thinking about the community, the things that are happening in the industry as well. Our goal was to refocus, update important issues, change the code of ethics, diversify membership, and hold individuals accountable for their behavior to one another. I am proud of our accomplishments, especially the new mission statement that can be found on the NYWCA website, and to make the Alliance relevant today for all members. Our members come from all sectors of the industry. I enjoy networking, making new friendships, staying relevant in our industry and supporting talented women.

Portions of this interview appear in the NYWCA newsletter. Photo credit: Karlie Louise