Chef Brian Shaner set his long and fruitful cooking career in motion with just a little white lie.
“I told a chef at a restaurant up there that I knew how to cook, which I really didn’t,” Shaner said laughing. “She gave me the job, and the rest is history.”
After a short stint in college, the Missouri native decided to move to Winter Park, Colorado, to ski and enjoy the mountains. Now the executive chef at Nick’s Italian in Fort Collins, Shaner looks back on his career fondly. He started working in restaurants at 13, doing things like dishwashing, bussing tables and food prep work through high school.
At the time, Shaner was an aspiring artist who never considered a career in food. Over the course of the last 30 years, his passion and skills developed, taking him to some of the most superlative restaurants in the country.
“(Food) has kind of helped me fill my niche because it’s also a creative process,” Shaner said. “It was never my plan, but it kind of worked out.”
In February 2015, Shaner teamed up with Nick Doyle and Clay Conley to open Nick’s Italian at 1100 S. College Ave. after deciding it was time to plant his roots with his wife and child in Fort Collins.
They were determined to start a classic, yet updated Italian-American restaurant. That, according to Doyle, was something the city needed.
Shaner has worked under renowned chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud in their Michelin-rated restaurants like Spago in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Café Boulud in Palm Beach, Florida.
His team at Nick’s agrees that Shaner has adopted the same intensity these celebrity chefs are known for as his own in the kitchen.
“He’s very focused on making sure the dishes are clear and concise,” Sous Chef Nat Fickenwirth said. “There’s no complacency. It’s an honor to have somebody like that to work for.”
Jake Coy, a cook at Nick’s said he has never had such an active manager as Shaner to ensure his work is executed perfectly.
“He’s always watching over my shoulder making sure we’re on the same page.” Coy said.
Shaner may run his kitchen with authority, but the pretentiousness that is often perceived in high-caliber chefs does not exist at Nick’s. He prefers to focus is on serving simple, honest food.
“There are no bells and whistles,” Fickenwirth said. “But we do have to make sure we put out the best dishes for each guest.”
The chef said the restaurant’s chicken parmesan is the dish that best represents what Nick’s is all about. It is a humble classic in terms of East-coast style Italian-American food, and he describes it as the “quintessential red sauce dish.”
He attributes the success of the restaurant to hard work and emphasis on making high quality food from scratch.
Aspiring chefs who are considering culinary school should maybe think again, he said. According to Shaner, when it comes to food, real experience trumps any certificate or degree.
“Save your money,” Shaner said. “…go and work in a kitchen, get paid for it and learn that way.”
At home, Shaner said his favorite thing to cook is roasted chicken.
“It’s very satisfying but very simple at the same time,” Shaner said. “It requires a little finesse to not mess up.”
In the future, Shaner aspires to open his own restaurant.
“Whether that’ll fabricate or not, I don’t know,” Shaner said. “But I’m still hanging onto that dream.”