Chef Robert Nixon has headed the kitchen at Donovan’s Steak and Chop House for the last 3 ½ years. He began cooking at the age of 16, the first job he ever had. Unlike most people, he discovered his forte immediately, finding that he enjoyed all aspects of the process of cooking and developing his creative ideas into great dishes. I sat down with him recently in a quiet corner at Donovan’s to talk about his past, present and future.
After your kitchen jobs as a young teen, after deciding to make cooking your career, did you have formal training?
Yes, I did. I went to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
What year did you graduate?
Which course of study did you enjoy the most?
The basic kitchen courses. That’s where I learned things I thought I already knew. The right ways to work in the kitchen: how to set up, how to clean, timing, orderliness, ordering, how to deal with people, meet deadlines. All the things you must know before you can begin to turn out great food and service.
Which course of study did you least enjoy?
The wine studies. I learned what I needed to know to be competent, but that didn’t hold my interest like most of the other courses did.
After graduating, did you do an internship or apprenticeship? Where and for how long?
Yes. I apprenticed with Chef Christopher Gross of Christopher’s and Christopher’s Bistro for 7 years. I learned most of the kitchen positions there. I was a sous chef, line cook and pastry chef among other things.
Who has mentored you along the way?
Chef Gross. He’s an award winning chef with terrific skills and many successful operations to his credit. I learned so much with him, in fact, that if I had worked with him first I might not have attended school for training.
What has been Chef Gross’ strongest influence on your own style of cooking?
The use of French techniques of cooking. He trained in them in Europe over the years and passes that knowledge along to his staff in practical application.
What phrase best describes your cooking philosophy?
Everybody has to eat; it might as well be good.
What is your best advice for someone thinking of taking up the profession?
Keep your eyes and ears open. It is necessary to be well-trained but that is never the end of the education; if you pay attention, you can learn something new every day.
What is your greatest challenge cooking at Donovan’s?
We strive for perfection at Donovan’s. That’s the challenge for me every day. No re-fires on orders, no complaints. We want it right the first time, every time. We set a high standard for ourselves and work hard as a team to achieve those standards.
Everyone always wants to know this. What is your favorite thing to cook at home?
Once in a while I might barbecue when I have time, but generally I don’t cook at home. I’m lucky, my wife cooks for me.
Do you ever eat fast food?
What is your favorite cooking utensil?
Tongs. You can do just about everything with them: stir, flip, add ingredients, plate dishes, pull out oven racks, hold a pot with no handle, lift lids, almost anything. The only thing you can’t do easily with them is taste the soup.
Thanks for talking with me today.
In a casual discussion, Chef Rob stated that he sees a trend toward an increasing number of upscale steakhouses and the return of American cuisine, both regional and national, to prominence in the realm of fine dining. He believes that consistency and attention to detail are the hallmarks of a successful operation, whether in the use of only 100% Prime beef; the hiring of qualified staff that understands the goals of the restaurant and the needs of the guests; or in the development of a new dish. His personal short term goal is to continue to make people happy by filling them up with great food.